What makes a t-shirt a t-shirt? Well, easy: its T-shaped format! Besides literally being a "tee", t-shirts are also associated with a certain kind of material (cotton) and with their very own atmosphere (informality). Tees are simple to make, comfortable to wear, and worn just about everywhere.
In fact, nowadays, t-shirts are perhaps the most common element of clothing all over the world. But it wasn't always like that — in fact, the humble tee has only been with us for a little over a century.
From its origin as a 19th-century working man's garment to the modern trends of the 21st century, the t-shirt has come a long way in a short time. Let's take a look at how it developed over the years.
The birth of t-shirts
Believe it or not, t-shirts come from a very ridiculous-looking (by our modern standards) piece of clothing called the union suit. We highly recommend googling union suit sometime, there are definitely a few chuckles to be had.
Well, at some point in the late 19th century, workers in mines and docks seemed to have fallen into the habit of cutting short the top piece of their union suit. Because seriously, those things were hot to work in. And there you have it — the first version of the t-shirt was born.
The early 1900s and armywear
Once the effectiveness of lighter clothing in the mines was realized, it didn't take long for the military to discover them. First issued by the US Navy, they were soon a staple undergarment in all branches of the military. They made for a comfortable piece to wear under a soldier's uniform and were great for fieldwork in hot climates.
Fast forward a few more years and we have World War I spreading the tee's popularity even further. No longer an undergarment only, t-shirts now started seeing ample use in all kinds of manual labor, including agriculture. They also became a popular garment for boys — cheap, good for running around, and easier to clean than regular shirts.
In 1920, "t-shirt" became an accepted word in the English language and had the honor to make it into Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. Now we're talkin'!
1930s-1950s: T-shirts enter mainstream fashion
Ranch workers in the Great Depression wore the t-shirt often, and so did Navy men during World Word II and afterward, and for pretty much the same reasons mentioned above — they were cheap, comfy, good for physical work, and cool.
However, it wasn't until the early '50s that the t-shirt became cool in the other sense of the word. And for that, as you may have guessed, we have Hollywood to thank for. After Marlon Brando wore it in A Streetcar Named Desire, the t-shirt finally had its big moment. Now it could never not be cool again. Now it was a cool, manly, edgy, rebellious type of garment — something for the James Dean and Marlon Brando would-bes to eagerly copy.
The t-shirt had finally come of age. No longer perceived as an undergarment, it was its own thing and could be proudly worn everywhere.
1960s-1980s: T-shirts as a form of expression
The 1960s brought two things that further changed and popularized the t-shirt: advancements in screen printing and, of course, a big societal shift in favor of freedom and personal expression.
The first change made it possible to print t-shirts with all kinds of text and images printed on them. The second made people want to give wings to their creativity and spread slogans — and for that, the t-shirt was a favored means of expression.
Besides being a vehicle for political-cultural expression, it didn't take long for tees to be channeled for advertising, as major companies like Coca-Cola and Disney started printing out t-shirts with their logos and company slogans.
1990s-2000s: T-shirts go global
T-shirts had been a staple of hip-hop and rap culture for some time, but the 1990s and the spread of streetwear made them go truly global for the first time — the relaxed, casual style of the t-shirt and sneakers was simply too easy to fall in love with.
Add to that the growing popularity of sportswear, driven by brands such as Nike and American sports franchises, and the tee further consolidates its worldwide appeal.
2010s-Present: The evolution continues
For the past couple of decades, people continued to find new and creative ways to wear their tees. Our age is one of easy customization, and custom printed t-shirts now show our love for popular movies and series, favorite bands, or favorite designer brands. Internet meme culture, too, is very present and brings an extra touch of humor to tees everywhere.
T-shirts have also been reinvented in different materials — the so-called performance t-shirts, popular in various athletic endeavors, have turned into their own athleisure fashion trends. The good old, simple t-shirt is still going places.
From a second-rate working undergarment to possibly the most popular item of pop culture, the t-shirt has no doubt come a long way. And it's likely got even more future than past — if recent trends are anything to go by, the t-shirt is likely to be a key theme of exploration for future fashion and customization trends. What can we say? We're all for it!
It's anyone's guess where the t-shirt goes next, but one thing is for sure: it's not leaving our culture anytime soon.