PART 1: Early T-Shirt History

A first glimpse into T-shirt history reveals that, the T-shirt is not, as one might mistakenly think, a staple wardrobe item of knitted cotton, known and worn in every possible condition, fashion, shape and cultural form the world over. Trust me on this. You see, the T-shirt is a great deal more: It is a political statement, a pledge of allegiance, a declaration of intent, an item of propaganda, enduring cachet in the ever-changing currencies of cool, It is bragging rights, street cred and, an enduring memory fixed and framed on a bed of cotton; it is a launchpad for envy, and for peer and parental outrage, it is a billboard, it is both a warning as well as an invitation and, those are just the ones with something printed on them. The history of the humble T-shirt is far greater than the sum of its parts. Throughout T-shirt history this ubiquitous garment has been the herald of the now, and even the soon-to-be-now, it is both our papyrus and our pyramid, the cave-wall painting of our civilization. It is where we sketch our stories, declare our allegiances, our politics, and run up our flags–both friendly and fearful, it is a signpost we use to save us the trouble of telling each other what we are thinking, feeling and listening to. There is no other garment in the modern closet which is so ubiquitous, so multi-functional and practical, so politicized and so loved, as the basic Tee. But where did it come from and how did it get here?

T-shirt History: A Pre-History

The T-shirt as we know it does not arrive fully formed in a storm of prêt-à-porter perfected readiness. The Tee evolves out of our history with clothing and across a rocky century of upheaval, war, protest, gender-relations and practical needs. The first T-shirt, like the first humans probably emerged as a lumpy, niggly, amorphous thingamajig hardly worth commenting on, other than to point out its smell. It is draped. It is tied. It is unrefined, unkempt, unfettered, uncultured, unstructured, but most importantly–it is underneath. If you are looking for the genesis story of T-shirt history–its cottony Garden of Eden–the most likely place to find it is as the lumpy something beneath other clothing to prevent chaffing, and to encourage insulation. One layer is good, but two layers are better, and when resources are scarce multiple layers are marks of wealth, and often of status. There is little point in wearing a skein of fabric beneath say, protective armor, if you can’t afford the armor, or lack the status to wear it. In the early pre-history of undergarments the pecking order is simple, if you’ve got ‘em, you are upwardly mobile. By the sixteenth century clothing in general had become quite refined; undergarments were worn to protect and to preserve expensive outer-garments from perspiration and marks left by the skin. In T-shirt history, as the starched and stuffy Victorian era (1830s through 1900) rolled around our proto-tee is well and truly “underneath” and starts to appear as a lather strange long, beaver-tailed undershirt doing double duty for men as underwear, which was rolled up to cover the dangly mister-bits.

Spectratees T-shirt History 1
1. German seaman pre-1900, note the striped undershirt “peeking out” of the “V-neck” beneath the outer uniform.
2. Bathers early 20th century in Washington, D.C. The tight bathing suit had a profound influence on the development of T-shirt history.
3. Fashionable Atlantic City bathers sporting the risqué bathing suits of their time.
4. A lifeguard from around the same time, with a one-piece “tank” bathing suit complete with belt. T-shirt history is an evolution from rudimentary sportswear and the slow separation of the shorts and the tank “vest” part of this swimsuit construction.

The delicate Victorian sensibilities of this age dictated that collars should be starched, and stiff and, along with most everything else–suppressed. With this came the need to cover the body with layer upon layer of cloth to conceal any secondary sexual characteristic which might send “the wrong idea,” to the opposite sex. Ironically, it is in this early repression of the idea that men and women are sexual creatures that, this most famous undergarment starts to become both an object of fetishization as well as an immensely powerful symbol for sexuality.

The T-shirt Joins the Navy

With Victorian undergarments stacking up as well as hiding out, it is tough to imagine how the grand-daddy of the modern T-shirt emerges from this laundry pile of propriety. The most likely, and most cited explanation, comes to us from the U. S. Navy, circa 1880. At the time, standard, able-bodied issue was a pair of bell-bottomed trousers, a flannel cotton undershirt and a jumper, worn on top. As an undergarment, cotton flannel was perfect for life on the ocean, as it prevented chaffing, wicked up sweat, kept its owner warm, and dried faster than anything else a sailor owned.

Spectratess T-shirt History 2
1. American Farmer, C1930’s. The Tank-top had become a staple underwear item.
2. French sailor C1930s, relaxing in “The Wife beater,” already the tank’s is a prominent piece of under-wear for many manual laborers.
3. Sailors on parade 1942, the T-shirt was already a part of the fleet from 1913 onwards.
4. Standard issue navy T-shirt, the original C1930s

But it isn’t the T-shirt that leaps out to declare itself “arrived” that is the critical point of this history. No sir, it is the development of a v-shaped neckline in the sailor’s jumper (worn above the cotton undershirt) which eventually gives the rudimentary cotton flannel undershirt its first, true peek out at the world. When the world looks back it finds a durable, cotton-flannel undergarment with two buttons astride a placket near the neck, revealing itself only when the tough tasks on deck required the crew to strip down for freedom of movement and to prevent their cleaner and smarter top-layers from grime.

Around this time another phenomenon was moving rapidly to change the fate of the T-shirt forever. The rapid industrialization of the textile industry in the latter part of the 19th century began to produce machine knitted fabrics on an industrial scale. Where, previously, undergarments were made of wool, now cotton became the textile king in its ease of use and speed of manufacture. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century also brought the very first specialized form of “athletic” clothing, or rather–clothing designed with a single sporting activity in mind, like swimming or running. The “Tank Suit” swimsuit of the 1890s emerges out of this need. The controversial bathing suit which started to appear on bathers at the turn of the last century received more than just a warm welcome on its debut, angrily polarizing its enthusiasts and detractors alike. Arrests of these daring bathers for public indecency were frequent. Policemen were given measuring tapes to ensure that bathers did not test the limits of a well established Victorian modesty.

Spectratees T-shirt History 3
1. A “union suit” advertisement, an early precursor to the T-shirt, from the 1920s.
2. French artist Fujita, 1925 in a ribbed tank-style undershirt.
3. Charlie Chaplain in “Modern Times” 1936 the working man’s T-shirt.
4. Mechanic, 1919. Early 19th C working classes don this undergarment beneath factory overalls.
5. Tattoos and t’s, always a good combination already in the 1930s

The snug fit of the early tank suit and the idea that an item of clothing should fit the contours of the body truly broke with the stuffy Victorian aesthetic and flew in the face of its very prim and pious sensibilities. By 1913 the design influence of the tank suit had picked up speed and was starting to become something of the staple undershirt for many. Critical to this early history is the moment the U. S. Navy took on a plain white, crew-necked, button-less, “T” shaped, cotton-knit undershirt as its own, with a its broad neck-hole to allow it to be pulled down quickly over the head. It took a few more years and more than one world war, but the T-shirt, as we know and love it, was here to stay from the 1920s onwards.

Part 1 of our T-shirt history series – read Part 2 here– read Part 3 here.