History of the T-shirt – a style icon

The T-shirt is the fashion item that spans all generations, all social statuses and all continents. The only people who don’t own one of them are untouched Amazonian tribespeople. In this blog, we’ll look at its origins and how it became one of the most popular clothing items on the planet.

What makes a T-shirt?

A T-shirt is a unisex fabric garment made to resemble the shape of the letter T. Typically T-shirts are made from knitted jersey fabric, though they can be made of any fabric and they tend to be made from soft cloth. Most T-shirt designs are made from a continuously woven tube made on a circular loom so that the sides have no seam and the arms are stitched on.

The T-shirt started life as an undergarment in the 19th Century which evolved from a full body suit. The garment became popular with miners and dockers and were worn as body cover in hot environments.

T-shirts, as we know them today, with no buttons, are dated by clothes historians to date back to between the Spanish American war of 1898 and 1913, when the US Navy started issuing them to sailors as undergarments. In submarines and tropical climates, it became common for marines and sailors to remove their jackets and work in their T-shirts. From here T-shirts exploded in all industries. Agriculture workers and construction workers started wearing them because they fitted easily, were easy to wash and were a low-cost item to buy. The word T-Shirt first appeared in the Merriam Webster dictionary in the 1920s. By the time the great depression hit in the 1930s, the garment was popular across all industries. By the end of the 1940s, it was common to see men wearing T-shirts as a casual clothing item.

By the 1950s they were appearing on characters in Hollywood films, notably in Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean and in A Streetcar Named Desire starring Marlon Brando. By the time the 1960s came around, the T-shirt was a source of self-expression with slogans being emblazoned on them. They also became the medium of choice for advertising everything from albums to soap powder and soft drinks.

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