Humble, commonplace, yet iconic; the T-shirt turns 100 this year.
At the turn of the 20th century, “union suits” were the undergarments of choice. For hot environments, resourceful individuals sheared the top from bottom and hacked off the long sleeves, leaving a round-necked short-sleeved shirt that had enough tail for the rough hem to be tucked into trousers. These one-off shirts were adopted by miners, sailors and others working in hot climates, thus providing the initial iteration of the T-shirt.
Then the U.S. military came along and officially catapulted the T-shirt into history: In 1913 the Navy issued crewneck T-shirts to be worn beneath uniforms.
Those first T-shirts were almost identical to what we wear today: crew-necked, short-sleeved and sewn from white cotton knit fabric. Intended to be worn under uniforms, sailors and Marines in the Spanish-American War commonly removed their uniform jacket on work details in the tropics, soiling the T-shirt, not the uniform — and keeping cooler, too.
It took the Army a full 35 years to realize that the Navy had a good thing; the “quarter sleeve” shirt was officially issued in 1948.
T-shirts have had their ups and downs over the last century. Hollywood’s influence has worked both ways: 1934’s “It Happened One Night,” starring Clark Gable, showed the actor removing his dress shirt, revealing a T-shirtless bare chest. T-shirt sales plummeted 75 percent. Sales skyrocketed following Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951. The heartthrob and his tight T-shirt, onscreen in practically every shot, boosted sales within days of the film’s release.
Printed T-shirts began appearing in the 1940s, but it was the invention and perfection of Plastisol ink in 1959 that opened the floodgates for mega-production of screen-printed T’s. Plastisol could stretch without breaking up, was durable enough to survive multiple washing cycles and didn’t irritate most skin types.
Fashion historians claim the Andy Warhol bright-colored print T of Marilyn Monroe as the first “true T-shirt icon.” From that moment in 1962 the T-shirt became a force of its own, with zany hippie tie-dye effects, rock band posters, political protests, T-shirts promoting charity and countless other causes, including both the sacred and the profane.
The unassuming T has sired some variants, too. There’s the “deep-V,” that staple of the Jersey Shore; the “polo” type with its modest collar and three-button placket; and, of course, the tank. But the eternal, essential T-shirt remains one of the least-changed designs in fashion history. Not bad for 100 years old.