The T-Shirt: From Men’s Underwear to Casual Couture

There is the clean one, the wrinkled one, the ripped one, the one you kept after a breakup, the one from the concert you went to in your teens, the college one, the one with a sports logo, the one that doesn’t really fit but you can’t really part with and pile of ratty ones that you work out in. You probably also have some basic white ones, some you kept from your childhood and maybe ones you wear under your clothes. You probably remember the various ones that said “Kiss Me Because I’m (insert nationality here)” and the “Everyone Loves (blank) Girl/Boy” that popped up everywhere in the early 2000s. You may have been given a free one for signing up for a credit card or caught one thrown into the crowd during a sporting event.

The t-shirt is comfortable, durable and is the most thoughtless wardrobe item that says the most about its wearers. It is a way to promote yourself and your beliefs and everyone puts their name on it–corporations, couturiers and presidents alike. We’ve probably worn too many to count in our lifetimes and the t-shirt isn’t going anywhere. Instead, it has become a basic symbol for American culture and a wardrobe staple that we don’t even think twice about.

“It’s everywhere,” said David Knepprath, a Culver City silk screen printer. “It’s engrained in us as a kid–the branding stuff, it plays on you in your psychology.”

white tees

The t-shirt got its start as men's underwear. Today, the plain white tee is not only unisex but acceepted as outerwear and called a 'basic' wardrobe item. Photo: Nardine Saad

From men’s underwear to a walking billboard to high fashion, the t-shirt is just as useable as it was when if first cropped up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Touted for comfort and hygiene, the breathable second skin really made its claim to fame when Hollywood bad boys like Marlon Brando and James Dean gave it its rebel cachet. According to Charlotte Brunel’s “The T-Shirt Book,” more than 2 billion shirts are sold annually worldwide, so the unisex basic has staying power for the very reason that it is becoming more and more disposable.

Most people don’t think about where their clothes come from, nor do they notice that the garments they don are a direct reflection of the times they live in. The symbol of casual couture is woven into American cultural history through capitalism and hyper-commercialism.

This is the story of the evolution of the modern t-shirt–from conception to consumption told through Los Angeles t-shirt companies and consumers.

“It’s a form that’s great because it’s a form that can constantly evolve but still stay the same,” said fashion expert Christina Johnson, the collections manager at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles.

Few items seem more all-American than a t-shirt, and this story begins with the power of the basic plain white tee. But first, a bit of history…

Brunel's 2002 book chronicles the history of the t-shirt and explains how it has become a cultural icon. Photo: Nardine Saad

Author Charlotte Brunel wrote in The T-Shirt Book that “the t-shirt is to clothing what the blank sheet of paper is to writing–a surface for imagination and free expression to run wild.”

Johnson couldn’t agree more. She, like many experts in the fashion industry, asserts that fashion is a direct reflection of culture.

“It’s really fascinating to take one garment and look at its transformation over the decades,” she said. “It’s easier to see fashion as a collective mindset when you talk about one garment.”

The t-shirt got its start as a modest substitute for the thick, itchy woolen undergarments that European men wore beneath their work clothes. Noblemen wore its cotton predecessors under their fancy garments to prevent sweating and odor. In the 1880s, American sailors wore “flannelette,” which were cotton flannel V-neck shirts, as part of their uniforms. French soldiers wore the lightweight tops during World War I.

marlon brando wearing a plain white tee

Marlon Brando wears a t-shirt as outerwear in "A Streetcar Named Desire," which was uncommon in the 1950s. Photo: Creative Commons licensed

Coined for its simple structure and resemblance to the letter ‘T’ the garment gained popularity as an undergarment in the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1920s, Webster’s dictionary added ‘T-shirt’ to its tomes. Later, it would simply be referred to as a “tee.”

By World War II, the t-shirt was a standard issue garment for men in the U.S. army and navy and it became more acceptable to wear it as outerwear in hot weather. In 1932, Jockey International, Inc. developed what is known as the modern crewneck t-shirt for the University of Southern California’s football team to absorb sweat and prevent chafing on the shoulders. In 1948, the first known political t-shirt surfaced bearing the slogan “Dew It With Dewey”. But it wasn’t until 1951 that Marlon Brando shocked American moviegoers when he wore a plain white t-shirt, not as an undergarment but as a top in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Americans were in the throes of the McCarthy era and, thanks to Hollywood, the t-shirt, jeans and leather jacket trio became synonymous with social protest.

“Hollywood played a major, major role,” Johnson asserted. These “cool guys” were transforming film costumes and making what was considered a working class shirt appropriate outside of work, simultaneously producing a pop culture icon.

Prior to World War II and these films, screen actors wore a shirt and tie uniform, Brunel wrote. Infamous bad boys like Brando and James Dean (in “Rebel Without a Cause”) further popularized the garment by wearing them in movies and on TV.

“I could have sold torn t-shirts with my name on them,” Brando said in 1966. “They would have sold a million.”

By the 1960s, even women were catching on. In the French film “Breathless,” Jean Seberg’s white tee–demarcated with the New York Herald Tribune logo–kicked off the ‘girl power’ era.

Author Diana Crane wrote that before the t-shirt became fashionable it distinguished between social classes, a function that was once performed by the hat.

“In contemporary societies, the sartorial equivalent of the hat is the T-shirt, which expresses social identity in many different ways, ranging from identity politics to lifestyle,” she wrote.

But Brunel argues that once high fashion designers got their hands on the t-shirt, the garment betrayed its democratic origins. The demand for it was one of “luxurious relaxation,” she wrote. Cotton was blended with other fabrics like Lycra, silk or cashmere, straight shirts became more fitted and designers branded them with their logos for a hefty profit.

“This symbol of consumer society has turned into a kind of portable modern medium; one both affective and demanding,” Brunel wrote.

By the 1960s and 70s, tie-dye techniques and screen printing technology made t-shirts an even bigger commercial success and variations of it–tank tops, V-necks scoop necks and muscle tees–became ubiquitous. The garment started to be mass produced in sportswear but the hippie era hearkened individuation. The ban on t-shirts in schools was lifted too and the shirt ironically became an equalizer among social classes.

“People were breaking away from the masses,” Johnson said. “The t-shirt is a blank slate to do that on.”

Individualizing the t-shirt by taking the mass produced item and altering it was a major hallmark in its history. Johnson said it became more about what was printed on the t-shirt than the garment’s style statement.

And in the 1980s, when corporate America boomed and women donned the power suit, the t-shirt became a commercial object. Designers and consumers branded themselves, and rock bands and professional sports realized they could make a lot of money by printing their names on cheap tees.

“You start getting the slogans and people are paying really to advertise,” Johnson said.

In 1989, Dov Charney started up American Apparel and, though many iterations later, eventually made the t-shirt sexy. His company and its business model have provided the canvas for retailers, wholesalers and designers to push the tee into its next era.

In Los Angeles County, where the clothing is as breezy as the weather, fashion is the largest source of revenue after the entertainment industry and brought in $32.9 billion in 2005, according to a report from the California Fashion Association. Johnson believes the t-shirt has played a major role in those figures.

Today, the Web has spawned new droves of t-shirt designers through sites like CafePress, Zazzle and Custom Ink. Hundreds of blogs take up residence online to chronicle new trends and humorous handiwork.

“The Internet is trackable. You know where your customers are coming from and that allows you to build your brand and market your brand based on your target demographic,” said Coty Gonzales, a Honolulu-based t-shirt blogger. “It’s hard to do all of that with a magazine ad. How do you a person purchased your T-Shirt because of an ad they saw in Maxim magazine? You can’t.”

The t-shirt is still the best way to identify a group or feel like you’re part of one. We wear them to show our political affiliations, favorite teams or designers or show off our alma mater. We lounge in them or throw a blazer on top to prepare for a night out. It is arguably one of the most versatile garments in our wardrobe and will probably continue to be in the years to come.

Whatever the material, armies of people from designers to manufacturers are scrambling to get their names and ideas onto the walking billboards. Jerry Hernandez is one of them.

About the Author

Nardine Saad Nardine Saad is a t-shirt aficionado and has nostalgically hung on to tees dating back to middle school (she usually sleeps in those). Her favorite t-shirts are a loose fitting white tee and one that says "Rock Like An Egyptian." She is a candidate for a master's degree in online journalism at the University of Southern California. These stories comprise her master's thesis project.