10 Fun Facts – The Origin of the T-Shirt
The history of the humble t-shirt is one, unlike any other garment. In our modern closets, the t-shirt is the most functional, practical, politicized, and loved piece of clothing. Since the inception of cotton production in Mehrgarh City, we have seen the cotton market become the most important commodity in the world — continuing for over 7,000 years. Today, the world’s total cotton market is about 12 billion dollars.
In 1904, the first t-shirt was produced. Marketing by Cooper Underwear company, the t-shirt was first labeled and named ‘long underwear’. The t-shirt emerged by the separation of the top and bottom half of Cooper’s long underwear. Nearly a year later, in 1905, the t-shirt consequently became the United States Navy’s uniform. The t-shirt’s role in the US Navy’s uniform was the initial installation of the modern t-shirt. Before the t-shirt, the standard Navy uniform was bell-bottom trousers, a flannel cotton undershirt, and a jumper or sweater, worn on top. For life on the ocean, flannel was a perfect companion: it not open kept sailors warm, but also prevented chafing, wicked up sweat, and dried FAST. The development of a v-shaped neckline of the sailor’s jumper (worn above the cotton undershirt) gave way to the basic flannel undershirt. When the sailors needed freedom of movement for deck chores AND wanted to preserve their decorative top layers, their cotton-flannel undergarments were worn. Originally, t-shirts were a type of clothing only meant for men. As a result, it was popular solely among men for decades.
Rapid industrialization during this time resulted in the textile industry boom. Undergarments were no longer made of just wool, but now cotton. Cotton was easy and quick to manufacture. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, athletic clothing designed for a single sporting activity (such as running or swimming) were also becoming popular. Until 1930, t-shirts were labeled and called ‘skivvies’ and ‘Jim shirts.’
The snug fit of the early ‘tank suit’ was developed to fit the contours of the body and evolved into a staple undershirt. Soon enough the US Navy took to the plain white, cotton crew-neck, buttonless “T” shaped undershirt. The broad next-hole allowed for deft changing. They were much lighter, weighing just 1.5 – 2 oncounces. It wasn’t until 1920, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise that the term t-shirt was coined. Since this time, the t-shirt has become a prominent part of both vernacular and wardrobe.
Over time, t-shirts have become more than a utilitarian piece of clothing, they have become advertisements, political statements, a currency of cool. The oldest form of textile printing method dates back to 3rd century China. Woodblock printing was a common form of decoration and monogramization. Centuries later, the first promo t-shirt was produced for The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Soon after, Coca-Cola did the first t-shirt brand promotion. Read more as we continue to explore the multi-functional t-shirt and its cultural significance over the past century.