We're ushering in the next era of the dressed.so blog…
Above: A rare framework knitter still in use late in the nineteenth century, via
The t-shirt contains multitudes. It can be disheveled or neat, cheap or dear, masculine or feminine. But, unquestionably, it is an icon.
The specific beginnings of the t-shirt are hard to pinpoint. Most historians locate the birth of the tee in the U.S. armed forces, either in the late 1800s or early 1900s, probably in the navy.(1) The tee’s origins are hard to pin down in part because the definition t-shirt is imprecise. The word does not enter the language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary until around 1920, despite existing in some form for nearly a decade or more before then. (The earliest quoted use in the OED is from F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s novel This Side of Paradise.) It is clear, however, that the t-shirt began as an undergarment. The French mariniere, which has more clear origins in the French navy in the mid-nineteenth century, shares some overlapping history with the t-shirt–naval origins, adoption by the young and hip in the mid-twentieth century–but the mariniere began as a sweater–outerwear rather than underwear. (It merits a post of its own.)
Above: Before knit undershirts came into favor, knit union suits (known alternatively as combination suits or long-handle underwear) were popular as a result of Victorian dress reform, via
The knitting frame or framework knitter was invented in England in the sixteenth century, and machine knitted stockings became commonplace soon after. Legend holds that Queen Elizabeth I refused a patent to the inventor William Lee because she feared the effects on the hosiery industry, or, more likely, backlash from the hosiers’ guild saying. The framework knitter allowed the advent of ready-made stockings, some of the first ready-made garments to become available. Knit woolen undergarments became commonplace after improvements to knitting technology like water power, made production exponentially more efficient during the Industrial Revolution. Increased interest in hygiene in addition to ever-lowering prices made knit woolen undergarments must-haves across social classes.
For some time combinations or union suits were more popular than separates for men’s knit underwear, but frame-knit undershirts were not uncommon by the mid-1800s. Union suits were an innovation of Victorian “dress reform,” a proto-feminist movement to make women’s clothing more comfortable, practical, sanitary, and all-around sensible. The union suit, a simple one piece garment made of knit cotton or wool, could replace the bulky and constricting corset and petticoats in fashion at the time. (This is also the era that gave us bloomers.) They soon became at least as popular among men as among women.
The precise moment at which the union suit began, as it were, to be cut in two to make an undershirt and underdrawers has never been precisely pinpointed. But union suits remained popular well into the twentieth century. A variety of undershirts, both with and without sleeves came and went around the turn of the century. At some point, probably around WWI, the U.S. military issued the first shirts that resemble the modern white cotton tee, and they began to be sold commercially by the early 30s. According to popular myth, college t-shirts were born soon after when the University of Southern California athletic department began printing “Property of USC” on their undershirts, and students were quickly clamoring to purchase their own. But the t-shirt did not reach iconic status until WWII, when images of soldiers and sailors stripped to their t-shirts began to pervade popular U.S. media. The t-shirt became a symbol for the youthful spirit of the boys overseas.
Above: The tank top or singlet, a close cousin off the t-shirt, came of age along with the tee. It was favored by artists who appreciated the freedom it offered. Shown here is Japanese-French artist Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita, c. 1920. via
From glamorizing the military in the 40s to lusting after working-class heroes (and villains let’s be honest) like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean in the 50s, the t-shirt continued to gain momentum in the mid-twentieth century. A Life feature on the t-shirt from 1951, subtitled “Dad Won’t Recognize His Old Undershirt–It’s Got Glamour Now,” calls the tee a “venerable American institution,” that now “sometimes resembles a man’s skivvy shirt in name only.” The clothes in the accompanying images of young women would hardly pass as t-shirts now. Rather, I’d call them knit blouses. But the magazine’s impulse to call anything knit and vaguely t-shaped a t-shirt shows the growing cultural weight of this once lowly garment.
Above: In the 1940s, images of sailors stripped to their undershirts became iconic, via
Since the 1950s, the t-shirt has found a home in nearly every cultural movement–its dominance as the generic torso covering of the second half of the twentieth century can hardly be challenged. T-shirts have been equally at home on hippies, punks, rappers, and boring people alike. Today, some devotees find something transcendent in the simplicity of the tee and spend considerable time and money to find that perfect fit, hand, and drape.
Loving basics doesn’t mean you’re basic. Here are some of Bhoka‘s favorite fits:
N1c | Nicolai | Umbreyonce
(1) The year 1913 is often named as the birth year of the white cotton undershirt, but I have yet to see a convincing citation.
Further reading and references
Did you know that Marlon Brando has 16 children?