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The Journal

A Brief History of the T-Shirt

The T-shirt – there probably aren’t many people alive today who haven’t worn one. They’re comfortable, cool, and classic. But while the design for the T-shirt was simple, its rise to prominence was anything but.

Written by Ben Deeb

Humble Beginnings 

Remember those old cartoons where yokel farmers would run from their outhouses in long underwear with a button-up flap covering their butt? Believe it or not, the story of the T-shirt starts there. In the mid-nineteenth century, workers started cutting their long underwear (called union suits) in half. For the sake of convenience, they’d cut the legs apart from the top and tuck them in, turning their onesies into twosies. While the top wasn’t really a t-shirt, the wool or flannel shirt was as close as they had. The style quickly became popular with the working class, and clothing companies began to take notice.

Fit for a Bachelor

Around the turn of the century, as stretchable jersey-knit fabrics became more available, a few brands started offering pull-over undershirts for men. They called them ”bachelor undershirts,” and they were designed to be worn under work shirts. Then, during the Spanish American war, the US Navy started issuing these undershirts to servicemen. While military protocol stated that they were only to be worn under their uniform, sailors and Marines often wore them without their jackets when they were on submarines, in the tropics, or out and about in other warm environments.

The Shirt Gets a Name

By the start of the First World War, short-sleeve undershirts were being worn in all branches of the military, but they weren’t calling them t-shirts just yet. It wasn’t until the 20’s that the T-shirt got its name. Surprisingly, the term’s originator was F. Scott Fitzgerald and its first print appearance was in his debut novel, This Side of Paradise in 1920. But while many Americans owned t-shirts in the twenties, they still weren’t worn in public without an extra layer on top.

A Style is Born

It wasn’t until after World War II that t-shirts started to be worn as outerwear. American GIs, having returned from the war, were used to wearing their military-issue t-shirts with their uniform trousers. They brought this trend back home, where it spread into popular culture. Then, in 1951, Warner Brothers released A Streetcar Named Desire. Marlon Brando wore an iconic white tee throughout the film. Afterward, t-shirt sales skyrocketed.

The T-Shirt Explosion

For the next few decades, t-shirts swept the globe. In the fifties, people started screenprinting shirts with designs and logos. In the sixties, the T-shirt became a mode of personal expression – people wore shirts bearing political slogans, famous artwork, and the faces of revolutionaries. From that point on, t-shirts came with all sorts of designs on them, from the classic smiley face shirts of the seventies to the “I heart NY” tees that were everywhere in the nineties.

Today, t-shirts remain as relevant as they have been for a hundred years. They’re simple, versatile, and timeless. And while there are (literally) millions of places you can buy t-shirts right now, we’re pretty proud of ours – and we think you’ll love them too.