History of the Humble T-Shirt

History of the Humble T-Shirt

History of the T Shirt

The Summary:

  • 1800s - makeshift underwear
  • 1910 - became official military underwear
  • 1920 - preferred attire for labourers, farmers, factory workers
  • 1951 - Marlon Brando & James Dean spark a worldwide fashion movement
  • 1960 - printed t shirts, tie-dye
  • 1977 - I (heart) NY design
  • 1980s - band t-shirts and slogans
  • 1990s - Hyper-colour
  • 2000s - every style, colour, slogan imaginable, worn YOUR way.

It’s hard to imagine a time when the t-shirt didn’t exist, it is such a staple in our 21st century fashion wardrobe, many of us would struggle to live without it.

The humble beginnings of the t-shirt are as simple as the garment itself. In the late 1800s labourers would cut their long-johns in half for use in warmer climates. Seeing the functional potential, the military soon started issuing t-shirts as uniform undergarments in the 1910s.

As you can imagine, wearing an undershirt with a heavy military button up on top could be quite cumbersome. Soldiers in tropical climates as well as marines stuck in stuffy submarines began removing their outer layer and performing their duties in their undershirt. By the 1920s this trend had spread to non-military labourers such as farmers, dock workers and factory men. Around this time the word ‘t-shirt’ enters the Merriam dictionary.

The iconic debut of the t-shirt as a fashion choice, not just a practical garment, came in 1951 when Marlon Brando donned a tight, white tee in his portrayal of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire.. Followed closely on screen by James Dean. This get-up inspired men around the world to ditch their outer layer and rock their underwear as a fashion statement. 

In the 60s we saw a rise in different styles and colours of t-shirts. Hippies made tie-dye cool and we started to see printed tees emblazoned with branding and political statements. 

In the 70s and 80s t-shirts became a powerful part of band (music) and brand marketing - being used as merchandise for fans. The ‘heart’ t-shirt, first designed by Milton Glaser for ‘I (heart) NY’ is widely known as the most popular design in t-shirt history.

Who can forget the hyper-colour t-shirt at the start of the 90s?! I had 3 of them! Can you imagine going around demanding people ‘touch me!’ these days? You can see why they never lasted, lol!

The rise of online shopping in the 2000s saw the market expand to provide us with countless different styles, colours, prints and slogans - you can even launch your own print-on-demand online t-shirt store! 

We are spoiled for choice in the 2020s. In the office here, I (founder Yvonne) often wear a t-shirt on top of a black wrap dress to add a punch of colour to my outfit (or when I want to cover my arms a little). When tied at the waist, this draws attention to the assets of my pear shape - cinching in the waist. It also makes the black dress more versatile - as the t-shirt makes the dress look like a skirt. For a more casual and sporty look, I got with a graphic/printed t-shirt and a pair of clean white or silver sneakers. A lace or embellished t-shirt and ankle boots gives a unique, expressive edge, especially when you layer that with carefully stacked bangles on your wrist, drop earrings and a glam clutch! 

And we LOVE the look over at Style Cantina, where they use their clever slogan tees with their glam, swishy skirts and gorgeous belts to create a super modern look.

We would love to see how you style this classic wardrobe staple - the humble t-shirt. Tag us on Instagram @yvonneadelestudio and #mystylespark so we can check you out!


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