The T-shirt derives its name from its shape: When laid out flat, sleeves perpendicular to torso, the garment forms the letter “T.” (So technically, there is no such thing as a “sleeveless T-shirt,” a term oftentimes misused to describe the “athletic shirt”). (See “A-shirt” below).
Along with jeans, the T-shirt is often credited with being the most popular garment of the second half of the 20th century and now the 21st, serving in every capacity from undergarment to work shirt to walking billboard to pajama top to regular shirt. Almost every man on the planet has at least one T-shirt in his wardrobe. And T-shirts have become the events memorabile and tourist souvenir item of choice—so much so that there is the saying, “Been there, done that, got that T-shirt.” T-shirts are generally inexpensive, low-maintenance, comfortable, and forgiving in their fit. So what’s not to like about them?
If classic is defined as that which has stood the test of time, then the T-shirt is one of the great sartorial classics of all time. The T-shirt made its way onto the fashion scene sometime between the Spanish-American War in 1898 and just before World War I in 1913 when the US Navy began issuing them as undergarments. But the submariners, who typically had to work in close, hot confines, would wear the T-shirts as an outer garment in order to receive some reprieve from the heat. After the war, the former military men continued wearing T-shirts—as shirts—in their civilian life. By 1920 the term “T-shirt” had been listed as an official American-English word in the Merriam Webster Dictionary. And the basic design of the T-shirt—with its jersey-knit cotton fabric; collarless, crew neckline; short sleeves; and tubular torso—has remained virtually unchanged ever since. By the 1940s, the T-shirt had come to be regarded as the unofficial “uniform” of laborers: bakers, miners, farmers, mechanics. The former undergarment had emerged as standard outerwear. But it was in the 1950s, when Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause nonchalantly wore T-shirts as regular shirts, that T-shirts became a must-have for teenaged boys. The T-shirt allowed young men, inspired by Brando and Dean, to unabashedly display gender—in an erotic way that had previously been regarded as socially forbidden.
Using the T-shirt as a means of advertising was also born in the 1950s, starting when the Miami-based company Tropix Tops obtained the exclusive rights to print images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters on T-shirts to promote the Disney brand. The company also started printing the names of Florida resorts on T-shirts, marketing the State as a tourist destination in the process. Almost immediately thereafter, rock bands were using T-shirts to promote their new releases. By 1967, T-shirts were being used as walking, breathing, interactive placards for social and political commentary as well as serving as a canvas for pop art. And because the classic T-shirt is unisex, women began wearing them in the ’60s. At 1969’s Woodstock, it was the tie-dye T-shirt that embodied the ethos of the historic gathering: young, carefree, and colorful.
But if bold tie-dye T-shirts epitomized the anti-establishment, mod dress of the Hippie Movement of the ’60s and ’70s, then it was the pastel-colored T-shirts worn by Miami Vice star Don Johnson that would give rise to the concept of “casual-chic” in the 1980s. Johnson effortlessly (or so it seemed) paired T-shirts with expensive designer suits; and overnight, like Brando and Dean before him, redefined American fashion. And the world followed suit—so much so that decades later, Johnson’s once-iconoclastic look has become iconic.