Hot Tee: The Story of the T-shirt

Man wearing a white T-shirt
Image credit: Sahil Moosa on Unsplash

Well, folks, we’ve done it. After surviving the seasons’ dreary 9-month opening act, we have finally arrived at the main attraction: Summer, glorious summer. It’s the part of year meant for living life like it’s a Mainstay ad, all sails, sandy beaches, and improbably good-looking sunseekers.

And, speaking of cerulean shorelines and storybook summers, the time has also come to dress the part. Mid-June is the point on the calendar when it’s all but imperative for you to abandon layering and forget about your store of outerwear in favour of taking up residence in bathing suits, shorts, and plimsolls.

Of course, there is no item that better captures the spirit of summer than the T-shirt. Soft, airy, comfortable, and sans collar or superfluous sleeve-length — what could be better for warmer weather?

Oddly, though, the T-shirt started its life not as outwear proudly telegraphing the arrival of sunny days, but as a hidden piece of underwear intended to keep you warm in the cold. While loose-fitting tunics and undergarments roughly resembling a ‘T’ shape have been a feature of human dress for centuries, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the modern T-shirt’s most direct predecessor arrived on the scene in the form of the union suit. 

This form-fitting, all-in-one woollen undergarment came to prominence thanks to advances in technology that allowed for the mass-production of knit clothing. While they may not have been the most practical, comfortable, or attractive garments, they certainly did their job, especially in the days before widespread central heating. By keeping the entire body warm, union suits were thought to ward off cold-related illnesses, which was helpful in winter but something of a drag on warmer days, particularly when you consider the various layers of outerwear a person may have been wearing in addition to their ample underwear. 

Gradually, the union suit evolved to become more practical, first by separating into tops and bottoms to create long-sleeved vests and long johns (often still buttoned together) and then by isolating the undershirt as a discreet item, albeit one still in need of some improvement. 

WW2 soldier wearing a white T-shirt
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

As with so much in menswear, we have the military to thank for the invention of the T-shirt proper. In 1913 the US Navy adopted as part of its official uniform a plain white T-shaped undershirt with short-cropped arms. It had short sleeves ostensibly to keep sailors’ arms free as they worked and was kept white because it harmonised well with navy uniforms, made it easier to sport dirt, and was straightforwardly cheaper to manufacture since no dyeing was required. While all of this was a considerable upgrade from the loose-fitting, square neck flannel shirts previously worn beginning in 1880, these shirts were still made of a woollen flannelette and therefore took longer to dry. Across the pond, sailors in the Royal Navy had similarly been wearing undershirts since the late 1800s and, around the turn of the century, adopted lighter cotton undergarments for use in tropical climates. In their case, however, these cotton undershirts failed to offer much real protection. It wasn’t until the meeting of these two allies during WWI that a transatlantic hybrid in the form of the soon-to-be-iconic white cotton tee was born.

Several civilian brands had a hand in this evolution too. Sunspel in the UK and Fruit of the Loom in the US, for instance, supplied and helped advance many of those aforementioned early undergarments. Hanes, meanwhile, started making tees circa 1930 and by 1939 had created the world’s first promotional shirt for the release of The Wizard of Oz.

The initial marketing showed a garment that was still finding its feet. As early as 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company sold T-shirts as ‘bachelor undershirts’ since there were no buttons that needed resewing, making them ideal for men without wives — or sewing skills, for that matter. Later, in 1938, the American retailer Sears, Roebuck and Company helpfully clarified in its promotional material that ‘It’s an undershirt, it’s an outershirt’, going on to reassure men that they could ‘wear it as an outershirt for sports and for lounging, or as an undershirt — it’s practical, correct, either way’. Just a few years later, with wartime images of soldiers wearing T-shirts spurring greater civilian adoption, Sears was once again ready to assuage any consumer fears when, in 1941, they proclaimed: ‘You don’t need to be a soldier to have your own personal T-shirt.’

As we’ve seen, even the name took a while to catch on. The earliest documented use of the world ‘T-shirt’ in printed form came courtesy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise. In writing about a character preparing to attend a New England boarding school, the author cites a list of items deemed necessary to this end, including ‘six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T-shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc’. Fitzgerald uses the term casually enough to suggest he already assumed some familiarity on the part of his readership.

Certainly, those early years of the twentieth century proved a boom time for the young garment. There may have been some push back initially — in the 1890s seeing an undershirt out in public was considered scandalous enough that Havana lawmakers went as far as banning their display in public — but as T-shirts worn by soldiers came to connote a sense of bravery, the article caught on as a piece of outerwear among sporty types and working men on their weekends off. By the 1930s they were stocked in department stores across the United States and were commonplace in American high schools by the next decade. As per the New York Times:

‘By the 1940s, T-shirts had become ubiquitous in high schools. A newspaper columnist named Nancy Pepper wrote that teenagers owned closets full of T-shirts and customized them with sew-on patches and fringe. She reported that some high-school boys even used their T-shirts to advertise that they were available for make-out sessions; around the necklines of their shirts, the boys inscribed the words, “Neck here”.’

Marlon Brando in a Streetcar Named Desire wearing a T-shirt
Marlon Brando’s iconic T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

It was only in the 1950s, however, that the T-shirt truly came into its own as an everyday basic thanks to its popularity among method-acting heartthrobs in Hollywood. Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951), Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) gave the garment a hefty dose of rebellious spirit and sex appeal. It was enough to turn the plain white tee into a white-hot commodity. Part of it came down to the residual taboo of grown men wearing what is in essence a revealing piece of underwear out in public and the allure was undeniable: To look at Marlon Brando in a tight-fitting tee in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is all but synonymous with experiencing the feeling referenced in the film’s title.

From here, the T-shirt would never quite shake this rebellious edge (even as its present-day ease and ubiquity often have it chalked up alongside the likes of sweatpants and Velcro sandals as being evidence of a general decline of masculine dressing standards). A large part of the item’s continued edge is down to the power of the printed T-shirt, which really caught on in the 1960s thanks to advances in screen printing technology coupled with a ready supply of cheap shirts, at which point — and continuing to this day — we see the humble tee being used as a kind of blank canvas as much as it is a practical garment. Hence a proliferation of T-shirts bearing political, commercial, affiliative, humorous, or some other kind of creative imprint.

Today it seems impossible to conceive of a modern wardrobe that doesn’t contain at least one T-shirt. In fact, any given closet is far more likely to contain one too many. Such spectacular success on the part of the humble T-shirt over the last century is no doubt down to innumerable causes, many of them alluded to above. But the key, I suspect, is about it being about as simple, attainable, and versatile as a piece of clothing can be. It’s the blank page of every wardrobe, ready and waiting to express every preference and bit of personality you want to imprint on it. 

Now that summer is back, that’s exactly what I plan to do. Or I will, anyway, just as soon as the rain in Edinburgh stops long enough for me to cast aside my excess layers, put on a crisp T-shirt, and step out into the Mainstay sunshine, telegraphing to the world my love of summer and its most eternal wardrobe staple. 

Ernest Hemingway wearing a T-shirt in Cuba 1946
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain