Putting on a t-shirt first thing in the morning may not bring any second thought. The garment is simple as can be, and used either as a base layer or a canvas to display any graphic or design imaginable.
While a seemingly age-old clothing item, the domestic production of the t-shirt is officially only as old as the 19th century, first produced during 1898’s Mexican-American war where those in the navy used them for basic layering. Prior, the t-shirt was DIY’d by laborers, who were known to split jumpsuits in half when experiencing warmer temperatures. Similarly, the Middle East’s construction of t-shirts featured large pieces of cotton and linen that showcased its wearer’s hygiene. A much longer cut - the tail of the shirt would’ve been tucked between one’s legs - also represented a level of wealth, as cleaner garments signified a more well-put-together man. Like any other item of clothing, the t-shirt was birthed for function; acknowledging a basic need and remedying it.
Following its introduction to the navy, the t-shirt underwent multiple materials and experimentation. While knit and flannel were adopted for undershirts, the majority that had been worn as outerwear utilized 100% cotton. Steadily, this practice reached normalcy, and the 20th century marked a massive incline in their commercial sales. Some of the brands spearheading this surge are the same names we know today such as Fruit of the Loom and Hanes. What we now call “blanks” were then called “gobs,” referencing the item’s navy roots.
Once the t-shirt had become widely accepted as an outerwear garment for warmer weather, it began to become more evident what the item really was: a blank canvas. The 60s and 70s were the periods of this epiphany, eventually leading t-shirts to feature an endless variety of messages and symbols. Many included political messages, others humor, art, etc. Those that took a liking to this new possibility also began to realize how accessible this printing process was. Crucially, t-shirts became synonymous with posters and signs, and allowed anyone to, quite literally, to wear their hearts on their sleeves. From an industry standpoint, artists and record labels seized the opportunity to promote their works in the form of wearable merchandise. In sum, taking an outfit’s base layer and making it the statement piece.
So you see, maybe there is more to the t-shirt than what meets the eye. Understanding that rich history exists behind even the simplest items of clothing is important for any consumer of fashion, or for any wearer of clothes. Over time, we have witnessed how what was once an undergarment is now often bright, busy, and unique--not to mention the first item on anyone’s spring/summer shopping list.