T-shirts are one of the most versatile and useful garments for any wardrobe, but where did they come from? Like many of your favorite fashion pieces and styles, t-shirts have an exciting history of utility, rebellion, and popular culture, and they continue to influence modern fashion today.
Here at PixieLane, we love all things fashion. In addition to sharing a wide collection of pieces and styles for families on the go and moms making waves at work, we’re also all about embracing fashion history (and adding our own spin!).
Learn more about the history of the t-shirt and other exciting fashion stories with PixieLane.
The Origin of the T-Shirt
Today, the t-shirt can be paired with anything from a pencil skirt to skinny jeans, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, t-shirts have a very utilitarian and user-oriented origin, which explains their versatility, comfort, and modern popularity. To understand the history of the t-shirt as we know it, we have to go back to the early 1900s.
T-Shirts Were Originally Military Apparel
There is evidence to indicate that t-shirts were introduced as early as 1898, during the Spanish-American war. They would become popularized a few years later, thanks to a magazine ad run by Cooper Underwear Company.
That ad promoted a new product for bachelors, which showed a man keeping his button-down shirt closed with a safety pin and then touted the benefits of the new t-shirt, which needed no needle or thread.
A variation of t-shirts was available to British soldiers in the 1800s, but evolving technology influenced their comfort and convenience. By 1913, they had become a staple of the United States Navy’s uniform, and later the Marines.
Soldiers stationed in warm climates would remove their outer layers to work in their more comfortable and breathable t-shirt. They were also easier to wash, making them a popular choice for dirty jobs.
The early t-shirts of military life were as basic as they come, available in a white crew-neck style that would influence fashion for decades to follow.
The Earliest T-Shirts Came From New York City
The t-shirt was merely the latest evolution in existing men’s clothing. Early on, hard laborers would actually cut the jumpsuits they wore in half to keep cool during the hot months. These types of jumpsuits were most commonly worn in New York. However, like all great fashion pieces, they became popularized outside the city as time progressed.
In the 1920s, the term “t-shirt” was officially coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel, This Side of Paradise, though the shirt’s t-shape means it was likely referred to by the name much earlier.
The Union Suit: An Early Version of the T-Shirt
The jumpsuit that helped New York laborers create the early t-shirt was referred to as a union suit because the top and the bottom pieces were connected. The union suit bears a resemblance to modern-day onesie pajama sets, but they were more form-fitting and used as undergarments.
The popularity of laborers and farmers cutting off the top half of their union suits led to companies producing the individual pieces. In 1902, P.H. Hanes Knitting produced a two-piece union suit, so men could wear the pieces separately without cutting them. By the 1930s, large companies like Sears were selling t-shirts, or “gobs,” as they called them, individually.
T-Shirts Go Mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s
Military and farm life made t-shirts popular for practical reasons, but by the 1950s and 1960s, they would become a fashion staple, as well. This was largely due to the wearing of t-shirts by popular Hollywood icons.
The move toward fashion t-shirts was considered rebellious for the time. Up until they were seen on popular celebrities, t-shirts were considered exclusively undergarments. To wear them as an individual piece with a pair of jeans or slacks was considered risqué and wild. But, of course, that was part of the appeal for some of the most iconic stars of the era.
Celebrities Like Marlon Brando and James Dean Rocked Tees
Marlon Brando is largely associated with the mainstream success of the t-shirt because of A Streetcar Named Desire, a film adaptation of the play by Tennessee Williams of the same name that debuted in 1951. In the film, Brando wears a plain white t-shirt. His suave, leading-man attractiveness made this garment a suddenly popular stand-alone piece for mainstream consumers.
James Dean was also known for wearing plain t-shirts. The films he starred in before his untimely passing were geared to the youth of America, exploring topics of rebellion, identity, and purpose.
In Rebel Without a Cause, which came out a few years after Marlon starred in Streetcar, James Dean wore iconic blue jeans, a white tee, and a red jacket combination that still has a hold on popular fashion today. It was a look embraced by the youth culture and pushed the t-shirt even further into the canon of modern style.
The Rise of Graphic T-Shirts
Surprisingly, graphic t-shirts were growing in popularity along with the classic, white crewneck look. Graphic t-shirts would become key marketing tools in political campaigns. Republican Presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey started the trend in the early 1950s with shirts that said, “Do it with Dewey.”
The true popularity of printed t-shirts came about when Walt Disney characters became available on printed shirts later in the 1950s. Culturally relevant characters made instant money for printing companies, and silk-screening became more accessible as well. By the 1970s and 1980s, graphic tees were a fashion staple.
T-shirts have a long and exciting history, and they continue to be a preferred piece for everyone from the busy mom to international fashion houses.
Here are a few of the reasons we’ll never tire of the tee:
Casual, Fun, and Personalized
T-shirts are a great way for fashion lovers to express their personalities. Whether you’re picking up a band t-shirt or showing off your favorite movie characters, they’re fun and personalized pieces for every wardrobe.
Everyone Can Look Stylish in Modern T-Shirts
T-shirts are also incredibly versatile. You can dress them up or down for a sleek and stylish look every time. And with so many different shapes, colors, and designs to pick from, it’s easy to find a t-shirt that fits your body type and fashion needs.
PixieLane Has Comfy, High-Quality Tees for Everybody
Here at PixieLane, we make it easy to find the perfect t-shirt for the next cute, stylish, or comfortable outfit. The history of t-shirts is long and exciting.
When you pull on your favorite tee, it’s a chance to join in on a legacy of innovation, modern technology, creativity, and rebellion. After all, Marlon Brando and James Dean changed the face of fashion and popular culture with nothing but a t-shirt.
That’s why we carry a wide collection of t-shirts and graphic tees in many different styles and designs, with patterns, sayings, color combinations, and more. Match your perfect t-shirt with a skirt, dress, leggings, or pants to create a totally unique and timeless style.
Explore the PixieLane t-shirt collection, as well as our growing library of fashion guides and histories, and begin putting together the perfect new outfit today.