The interesting history of the t-shirt goes from its humble beginnings “undercover” to the eye-catching piece of clothing we see today. Contemporary T-shirts are everywhere, in every color and with every imaginable image. How did the T-shirt slowly make its way from a hidden, purely practical piece of clothing to the center-stage role it now has in our lives?

They Began as Long Underwear

T-shirts started as one-piece undergarments with long sleeves and legs called a “union suit” (a “union” of a top and a bottom) invented in the 1800s. Women didn’t like wearing it, but male laborers, who needed to keep warm in the winter, quickly saw good sense and practicalities of union suits for them.

About Union Suits

The union suit had buttons running all the way up its front in addition to a buttoning flap across the backside. It didn’t take long to realize it would be much easier to get into and out of a union suit if it was cut into a top and a bottom.

Long Johns

Inventors called this new version “long johns.” The next step came when wearers asked if they really needed to keep closing and opening all those buttons. Someone figured that if, instead of cotton or wool, the long johns could be made of stretchier fabric, then the top could be pulled right over the head and snap right back into shape…no buttons necessary. The answer to this was “jersey,” a lightweight, knitted fabric. Several manufacturers began making the jersey long johns.

The Undershirt Hits the Marketplace

In 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company, better known today as Jockey International, advertised its own short-sleeved version of the long john top. The company called it, “The Bachelor Undershirt.”

Men Liked Tees

Men liked it. The garment was comfortable and easy to care for. The U.S. Navy liked it, too, and decided to issue the “undershirt” it to all its sailors to be worn under their uniforms. The Army followed. Before long, industrial workers and farmers starting grabbing them up at stores and in catalogs.

The T-shirt Gets Its Name

The history of the T-shirt didn’t stop there. As U.S. servicemen came home from World War I, they found it difficult to give up relaxing in their white undershirts because they had done so back on military bases. Mothers and wives, too, saw how easy was to care for  the simple piece of clothing.

A Famous Author

In 1920, the author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his novel “The Other Side of Paradise.” In it, Fitzgerald described a young man going off to college who packed his “T-shirt” to take with him. The name was new, but it made sense. A “T” was the shape of every guy’s torso. The shirt has been called that for the almost hundred years since that pop culture reference.

No Longer an “Under” Shirt

By the time the troops had returned from World War II, the white T-shirt was becoming a staple on high school and college campuses as outer wear. Veterans, the great American heroes of the day, began wearing them around as everyday casual clothing.

The T-Shirt Has a Coming Out

In 1951, the T-shirt got its own starring role in popular culture. Actor Marlon Brando wore a white T-shirt in the hit movie “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was seen by millions. Fans and fashionistas called it “sexy,” and men imitated the look. T-shirts became a fad that has never gone away.

Prints and Colors, Shapes and Sizes: All Customizable

T-shirts printed with images and words started to turn up here and there following Brando’s debut look. A momentous turn in the T-shirt’s past came when images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters were first printed on them in the 1950s. Before long, shirts of many colors were carrying pictures and logos of other well-known brands.

Printed T-Shirts

Over the next several decades, printed T-shirt designs grew freer and more original. Shirt fronts became symbols of individual expression. Some shirts incorporated slogans, quirky text or political statements. Rock band logos, album covers and psychedelic imagery became very popular on T-shirts.

Cool Styles and Cuts

Other styles and cuts were added, tailored to gender and social identities, like the snug lady’s tee and the oversize hip-hop tees of the 1990s. By 2012, full color tees were rated as the sixth most profitable piece of merchandise in the U.S.

Cheap Custom T-Shirts for a Cause

As design and technology has advanced, T-shirts have become an ideal medium for promoting products, brands and causes.

Today, customized T-shirts can be produced quickly and inexpensively. They can be a broad marketing tool or be wearable art. Their boundless value comes from the immediate emotional connection a printed T-shirt makes with the wearer. That’s why some of these simple garments have even become collectible, going at auction for up to $1500!

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