According to some the beginning of the T-shirt is credited to the navy. The US Navy that is, while other historians say it was The “swabs” in the British Royal Navy who wore them under their uniforms in World War I, some even suggest it was the French Army. American soldiers liked the comfortable lightweight cotton undershirt compared to the wool uniforms American soldiers wore and the rest is history.
Connection with the sea
Again there seems to be some discrepancy over dates, although most have the U.S. Navy issuing crew-necked, short-sleeved, white cotton undershirts around 1913. The newly created shirt allowed ease of movement and quick drying. By the 1920s the T-shirt had become an official tern in the American English Dictionary. By the late 1930s a couple of US retailers were marketing them, namely Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Sears, Roebuck & Co. Apparently this blossoming fashion did have one setback – in 1934 Clark Gable took off his clothes to reveal no t-shirt at all in the comedy ‘It Happened One Night.’. Nothing but a bare chest. This it seems sent t-shirt sales plummeting for a while.
By World War II both the US Navy and army were wearing standard issue t-shirts as underwear. However, it was really in the 1940’s that the t-shirt really got going with returning US servicemen.
The Smithsonian museum has ‘the oldest printed T-shirt’ on record in their collection and on display. It is a campaign shirt for New York Gov. Thomas Dewey’s 1948 presidential campaign.
Hollywood inevitably had the biggest impact on the classic tee with such iconic images as Brando’s T-shirt in the 1951 ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and James Dean’s unforgettable white tee in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ in 1955, which made t-shirt wearing cool and rebellious. This was followed by Elvis Presley and others adding to its popularity.
The 1960s saw the birth of the tie-dye craze in T-shirts and by the late 1960’s the introduction of screen printing guaranteed its success as a fashion accessory. The tee became a vehicle for publicising social change and political unrest . Fashion-wise the classic tee soon spawned a number of variations such as the tank top, the V-neck, scoop neck and the muscle shirt. During the 60’s and 70’s it was also music that capitalised on the popularity of the t-shirt. Rock bands began selling them at concerts with images and slogans and merchandising soon became a big money spinner.
The surfing t-shirt
Surfing has left its mark on the history of the t-shirt and fashion. The earliest examples of surfing t-shirts were no more than early marketing tools. Back in 1961 a Californian surfboard maker Floyd Smith is often credited as the first. Smith asked local surfers to bring their white t-shirts to his shop and he would screen print the company logo across it. Later that year t-shirts were made to advertise the Makaha International Surfing Championships.
Within a few years the landscape had changed completely with thousands of surf company t-shirts appearing. They quickly became “symbols of the casual and free spirited surfing lifestyle”.
Today in excess of 300 million surfing t-shirts alone are produced across the globe.
Today the influence of the humble t-shirt reaches every high street and back alley across the planet. Once again social issues are topical along with environmental concerns such as global warming. The t-shirt has certainly stood the test of time and it has a long way to go yet.