A Brief History of the T-Shirt

Witness the humble cotton tee.

Most people today own at least one–and likely, several. Why not? The modern-day tee offers everything Americans expect and love in their casual wear, including comfort, variety and style.

Practical and easy to care for, tee shirts are often people’s first choice for work, play or just hanging out. Today, tees are worn universally, giving wearers of every background, occupation, persuasion and ideology a canvas for self-expression that’s both personal and public.

Given tees’ cultural ubiquity, it’s easy to think it’s always been this way. But a quick peek at history reveals their true beginnings.

Under Where?

T-shirts evolved from undergarments introduced back in the 19th century. As the first buttonless slip-on garment, the earliest cotton tee appeared between 1898 and 1913, when the U.S. Navy issued short-sleeved, crew-neck versions as, ahem, underwear, to ease the scratchy discomfort of traditional woolen uniforms. Because of their incomparable comfort, utility and low cost, tee shirts quickly gained popularity with workers in a variety of industries.

1920s to 1940s
In the 1920s, the word ‘T-shirt’ first appeared in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. By the Great Depression, the basic cotton tee had become the go-to shirt for manual laborers of every stripe, including tradesmen, farmers and ranch hands.

In 1942, a rugged young airman decked out in a gunnery school tee adorned the cover of Life Magazine. Even after World War II, servicemen wearing a white tee shirt and uniform trousers was a common sight in magazines and newsreels. During this time, tees also caught on with fashion-crazy American teens, who often customized their favorite shirts with colorful, sewn-on patches.

Fast forward a decade, when the simple short-sleeved crew officially went mainstream after bad-boy heartthrobs Marlon Brando and James Dean sported them in two acclaimed Hollywood films.
This adoption marked the period when tees in the U.S. became less a working person’s garment and more ‘general-purpose clothing.’

‘60s to Today

It was in the 1960s that printed, graphic tees became the medium for self-expression that we know and love today. Thanks in part to advances in printing techniques and materials during this time, tee shirts also gained popularity among advertisers, as well music promoters, gift companies, political groups and many other organizations.

From the 60s until today, printed tees’ presence in fashion, business and society at large has grown exponentially, with annual sales topping more than two billion shirts. No matter who you are or what you want to say, a tee shirt can help you start the conversation. 

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