A t-shirt is a man’s best friend. Versatile, comfy and always in fashion, the t-shirt is a fundamental piece of kit. Clearly a no-brainer when it comes to styling, but have you ever stopped to think about where it came from? From undergarment to wardrobe must-have, read on for the history of the t-shirt…
History of the T-Shirt
The t-shirt as we know it became only popular during WW2. However its origins began nearly 100 years earlier in the late 19th century. The ‘union suit’ (think modern-day long johns) was a welcome alternative to the restrictive nature of Victorian undergarments. Although over time the suit was adapted and the trousers were cut off. Now worn as a separate slip-on item on the top half of the body, the first version of the t-shirt was born.
T-Shirts in the Military
As common with most menswear, the origin of the modern-day t-shirt stems from the military. Worn first in the Spanish-American war, it became a standard undergarment for all US troops in 1913. After the Second World War, veterans continued to wear their uniform once home and for those who returned to their studies, the t-shirt made a big impression on campus. Not just a hit with college students, it became an integral part of 1930s American football kit. The extra cotton layer was worn underneath jerseys to prevent uniforms from chafing. Practical and lightweight, the t-shirt was also adopted by blue-collar workers who needed to keep comfortable during long shifts of hard labour.
T-Shirts in the 1950s
The t-shirt gained further popularity with Marlon Brando’s look in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. With his tee’s stylish ribbed texture and ultra-tight fit showing off his impressive physique, Brando was the man all men wanted to be and women wanted to be with...
While the t-shirt started to gain momentum amongst younger people, when it came to public opinion, this former undergarment was seen as rebellious as it went against the rigid style conventions of the time.
Speaking of rebels, nobody looked more like one than James Dean in the appropriately-named 1956’s Rebel Without a Cause. Dressed in a red Harrington jacket (with that tartan lining), Dean worn his white t-shirt tucked into a pair of blue Levi jeans. A testament to the iconic appeal of the t-shirt, this look is still as fashionable over 60 years later.
T-Shirts in the 1960s
Innovative and rule-breaking, the 1960s was an exciting time for fashion. While invented in the decade before, the process of screen-printing only became commonplace in the 60s. The cotton t-shirt was the perfect canvas for this new process and so the graphic tee was born. With the boom in retail across the globe, t-shirts were reaching a wider audience than ever before. Sensing a money-making opportunity, this led to the introduction of advertising on t-shirts.
As the t-shirt soared in sales, a wide variety of designs started to emerge. Hippies became synonymous with colourful tie-dye t-shirts, while music-obsessed teenagers wore t-shirts with their favourite band’s logos. Tie-dye may not be for everyone, but a rockin’ band tee still remains a music lover's essential.
T Shirts in the 1970s to 1980s
Arriving abruptly in the mid-70s, the punk movement was a force to be reckoned with. Spear-headed by the iconic designer Vivienne Westwood, the humble tee became a symbol of punk fashion. A way of self-expression, political beliefs and statements were worn right across the chest. The t-shirt also gave establishment the finger by going against style conventions with the addition of rips, stains and safety pins.
Sportswear came into its own in the 1980s and the logo t-shirt became a prominent part of this new trend. As with anything from the decade (see: hair), the bigger the better. Oversized design logos made a statement on t-shirts and quickly became a must-have item. With the presence of new fabric technology, Lycra and Nylon t-shirts also changed the game when it came to t-shirt design. Ignoring the shell suit (...please can we forget), sportswear, and by association the t-shirt, proved it could be worn anywhere in style.
T-Shirts in the 90s to 00s
As casualwear started to rule fashion in the late-20th century, the t-shirt became king. From hip-hop heads to long-haired grungers, the t-shirt was worn by anyone and everyone. Responding to the excessiveness of the 1980s, the no-nonsense nature of the t-shirt captured the decade's back-to-basics approach to fashion. Designers like Calvin Klein pioneered minimalist style, which made the now-classic combo of white t-shirt and jeans a familiar sight across the globe.
Taking inspiration from celebrities, the tee became acceptable to be worn in more formal settings. From Brad Pitt to Johnny Depp, they were all swapping shirts for t-shirts on the red carpet. Who would have even thought that a former undergarment could be worn with a suit? The t-shirt had certainly come a long way…
T-Shirts to Wear for 2018
Nowadays, the t-shirt is the go-to item for any man. Whether you wear it casual or smart, the tee’s timeless appeal will suit any look. You may have a well-stocked inventory of basics, but there's no harm in updating your t-shirt collection this season. From sleeveless to long-sleeved and plain white to polka-dotted, the choices are endless. We’re here to help with our top picks of the t-shirts you should own, and be wearing right now:
There’s a reason why the crew neck t-shirt is an all-rounder, as this timeless tee boasts a universally flattering round neck. As versatile as it comes, it can be smart or casual, as well as a base layer in colder weather. Wear under a 2-piece to look effortlessly smart.
First worn by dapper New Yorkers in the 1920s, the grandad t-shirt has been a wardrobe staple for decades. The relaxed and easy-to-wear nature makes it perfect to be paired with a range of off-duty outfits. Whether worn buttoned up or left open, that neckline detail gives a point of difference over the classic crew.
Whether it's nautical stripes or tropical florals, a printed t-shirt is guaranteed to make your look stand out. A print will instantly brighten up a t-shirt making it versatile enough to work from day to night. Not just a style statement, a printed tee can also help offset proportions. Think vertical patterns to add the illusion of a little extra height.