The Fascinating History of the T-Shirt

Long ago, in a land far, far, away, some very hot, very sweaty soldiers stripped off their uniform jackets to beat the heat. It was WWI, and the British soldiers knew just how to handle the hot and humid summer days…they stripped down! American troops, stifling in their wool uniforms, were amazed and impressed (and probably envious, too) at the sight of the other men in their lightweight cotton, and the phenomenon of the t-shirt was born.

In the 19th century, the idea of underwear was developed; it was an idea which had not been common before that time. At some point near the turn of the century, the underwear shirt was developed, and for the world of clothing and fashion, a whole new article of clothing was born.

While the actual beginnings of the t-shirt are unknown; there are some common ideas on where it first came from. Many industry insiders say that the t-shirt started out as women’s underwear. When Russell Manufacturing Company incorporated 100 years ago in 1902, the first finished product was a ladies’ undershirt, or summer weight vest. Some people believe that this was the very first tee.

After a lot of experimentation, cotton was found to be the ideal material for underwear, and t-shirts were made from this to prevent the harder, rougher outer clothing that was almost intolerably itchy from coming into contact with the wearer. Immediately, the
t-shirt contributed to an easier, more fitted wardrobe. Despite this practicality, it remained an undergarment, only ever seen on someone’s washing line. One could only buy this new undershirt in the very backs of the stores.

During the 1948 presidential campaign, the t-shirt industry was forever changed. The oldest printed custom t-shirt known is housed at the Smithsonian Institute and bears the mantra “Dew-IT with Dewey”; a familiar phrase from New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s campaign for the presidency. By World War II, the t-shirt was a piece of durable underwear in the United States. Soon after, it came to the forefront of people’s wardrobes through the influence of Marlon Brando’s performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and by James Dean’s bad-boy image. Movie fans everywhere were anxious to copy this new fashion trend. For many, it was an easy one; they already had loads of undershirts in their dresser drawers, and only needed to bring them out of the closet. Once moviegoers saw the comfort and attractiveness of this simple article of clothing, they couldn’t get enough. In fact, since Hollywood used the t-shirt in costuming its actors, the tee’s popularity has soared.

T-shirts are typically made of cotton or polyester fibers (or a mix of the two) and then knitted together in a jersey stitch that gives a T-shirt its distinctive soft texture. T-shirts are often decorated with text and/or pictures. T-shirts are also now being made using organic textiles such as cotton or hemp.

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