29th April 2019

A brief history of the t-shirt

With over 2 billion sold world-wide every year, the t-shirt is the most popular single piece of clothing on the planet. T-shirts are so popular now that we take their free and easy style for granted. So why did the t-shirt become so popular – and where did it come from?

The first recognisably modern t-shirt ( crew neck, shortsleeve, cotton, no buttons ) was originally designed to be worn as an undershirt or vest. In the early 1900s the US Navy began issuing t-shirts to its sailors to be worn underneath their uniforms. In warmer climates sailors would often remove the top half of their uniform leaving just the t-shirt, which was much cooler for toiling under a hot sun. The comfort and practicality of the t-shirt soon caught on and before long all branches of the armed forces were using them – but still as undershirts designed to be worn beneath uniforms.

The idea of the t-shirt as a practical working top quickly spread and by the 1930s labourers and farmhands across the USA could often be seen wearing t-shirts – but only for working. The t-shirt was still primarily seen as a working or undershirt.

The first magazine cover to show a printed t-shirt – Life Magazine, July 1942, featuring Corporal Alexander  le Gerola of the US Air Corps


That view began to change slowly following the second World War, when veterans wore their t-shirts as outer shirts with their uniform trousers. But the big change in attitude followed the 1950 film A Street Car named Desire, starring Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, a working-class tough guy. In the film Brando is repeatedly seen wearing his t-shirt on its own, not as an undergarment. The film’s gritty nature combined with Brando’s smouldering performance made the film popular with young audiences, who began to copy Brando’s look.

In 1950, nobody rocked a t-shirt like Brando


As the older generations thought of t-shirts as working clothing only, not fit for ‘normal’ wear, so wearing one became a small act of rebellion. The look was further boosted in 1955 when cinema icon James Dean wore t-shirts shamelessly in Rebel without a Cause.

By the 1960’s t-shirts were worn by millions around the world and the t-shirt became known as a free, easy going piece of clothing associated with youth and freedom.

It’s only rock’n’roll but we like it. 1970’s Rolling Stones shirt.


Wham! Katharine Hamnetts bold graphic oversized designs re-booted the t-shirt in the early 1980’s


T-shirt’s with suits! Uber-popular 1980’s TV show Miami Vice took t-shirts to new sartorial heights


Businesses of course were keen to get in on this youthful act, and it wasn’t long before t-shirts with company logos and slogans began appearing, followed by rock t-shirts, political t-shirts, anti-war t-shirts and hippy tie-dye t-shirts. The t-shirt had become a medium of personal expression – you could use it to say who you were and how you felt.

The main method of printing on t-shirts has traditionally been screen printing but recent advances in technology mean that t-shirts can now be digitally printed – allowing for shorter print runs and personalisation. This means there are now t-shirts for hen-nights, stag-nights, birthdays, charity events, group holidays – you name it, there’s a t-shirt for it.

T-shirts for every occasion. Inbetweeners movie 2011


More than just a piece of clothing, the t-shirt has become a personal statement. Over two-thirds of us own eight t-shirts or more, and 80% of us admit to owning an old one that we just can’t let go of.

It’s the idea of a t-shirt as personal canvas that inspires us at T-lab. Just like some of the great t-shirts of the past we like our t-shirts to communicate a passion or interest – whether its for sport, or a hobby, or just good times, we create t-shirts that allow the wearer to visually express a little bit of who they are.