Welcome to the history of the T-shirt!
Until a few decades ago, the shirt off your back was nothing like it is today. Not only did they not resemble today’s T-shirts, T-shirts of yesteryear were clearly considered something to be worn underneath clothing, the second generation of union suits. But, most importantly, T-shirts hadn’t become a vehicle for advertising, nor were they a stand-alone industry.
According to The T-Shirt Book by noted screenprinting industry expert Scott Fresener, the beginning of the T-shirt is credited to the navy.
No one, says Fresener, really knows when the first T-shirt was produced. But the U.S. Navy adopted a crew-necked, short-sleeved, white cotton undershirt as issue to be worn under a jumper as early as 1913. The purpose: to cover sailors’ chest hairs. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that companies including Hanes, Sears & Roebuck, and Fruit of the Loom earnestly started to market the T-shirt.
This was an undergarment meant not to be seen. Fresener’s all-encompassing study of the T-shirt claims it was Clark Gable who set the T-shirt (and most certainly, his leading lady) back several paces in 1934 when he stripped off his dress shirt in the movie “It Happened One Night,” to reveal no T-shirt at all. Women swooned at the bare-chested Gable. Men were quick to follow suit. Nonetheless, T-shirts remained an item to be worn underneath a proper dress shirt, or under a work shirt, for that matter.
Sailors, Fresener reports, got the credit again in 1938 when Sears introduced a T-shirt called a “gob” shirt (after sailors) costing 24 cents apiece. For the first time, the T-shirt was pronounced appropriate to wear as an undergarment or as an outer one. The marines followed suit with a white issue that soon was re-issued on sage green for camouflage purposes. And in 1944, the army conducted its own survey on T-shirts to which enlisted men reported they preferred sleeves over sleeveless because of absorption under the arms and a better appearance, among other things.
And while Clark Gable may have set the T-shirt back, other movie stars such as Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire), James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause) and a young Elvis Presley made the T-shirt-as-outerwear sexy.
WWII brought about international upheaval and the first printed T-shirts. The Smithsonian Institute displays the oldest printed shirt on record, emblazoned with the phrase “Dew-It with Dewey” from New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s 1948 presidential campaign. T-shirts were changed forever.
Nonetheless, T-shirts were still meant for men. That is, until marketing gurus including Walt Disney began to “flock” letters and simple (often peelable) designs onto T-shirts to be sold as souvenirs. Then came the ’60s, when hippies abandoned traditional dress for tie-dye. T-shirts became one of the easiest, and cheapest, forms of clothing to buy and dye.
Plastisol, a stretchable ink invented in 1959, was the first revolution in T-shirt design. Then came the iron-on transfer. And finally the litho transfer. An industry was born.
And it has grown up. More than one billion T-shirts were sold in 1995.
Editor’s note: This quick history lesson on the T-shirt was compiled with the help of The T-Shirt Book, by Scott Fresener, Gibbs Smith, publisher (c) 1995.