The Evolution of the T-shirt

the first t-shirts
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Everyone has a T-shirt!

You may be wondering, or maybe you weren’t. But the truth is that unless you are the Pope or Karl Lagerfeld, then you own (and are probably wearing right now) a T-shirt.  It is, without question, the single most popular clothing garment in the entire world. There doesn’t even seem to be a limit anymore, everyone can wear it anytime, anywhere, and any amount! Just last year Sanath Bandara in Sri Lanka won the Guinness world record for “Most T-shirts Worn at Once”, a grand total of 257! Yes, I can’t imagine how that looks either. T-shirts are everywhere, you can now even design your own T-shirt online!  

But where do T-shirts come from?

The name comes from the shape the garment itself has, and its roots are not as complicated as someone might think. It all started with the “union suit” one-piece underwear. Somewhere along the way, someone thought it would be more comfortable (and practical) to divide it in half. Even though they were split from their bottom half, T-shirts were at first still used as undergarments, meant to be worn underneath uniforms and dress shirts. The first recorded time of this happening was during the Spanish-American war (1898.)

In the times were decency required men to cover their torsos, but weather conditions required people to wear less than possible, the t-shirt became the cover of choice because of its lightweight. Among the first people to wear it out in the open were marines, miners and farmers. Thanks to their inexpensiveness and easy to wash quality, T-shirts soon also became the garment of choice for little boys.

20th Century T-shirts

During and after World War II it was common to see men wearing their uniform trousers with a t-shirt as casual clothing. It had gained popularity, but it didn’t become mainstream until Marlon Brando appeared wearing one in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). It is just of one of the many moments where cinema would inspire fashion and vice versa. In the 60’s and 70’s the power to convey messages through printed t-shirts was discovered. Some of the most famous prints from that era have survived until this day, for example, the smiley face and the Rolling Stone mouth.

In the early 80’s the T-shirt became a whole new monster when a Florida based company started printing Disney themed T-shirts after getting the rights to some characters. The sales were incredibly high, and in the blink of an eye, everyone started printing their t-shirts with fictional characters that ranged from movies to TV, and to comic books. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, a clever costume designer made Don Johnson wear one with an Armani suit in Miami Vice, making a fashion statement that could only be compared to what Tom Ford did for jeans in the late 90’s.

21st Century T-shirts

Since the turn of the century, the T-shirt has only continued to evolve. From 2009 to 2014, the T/shirt industry grew more than 24%. Every political message or protest now has a Printed T-shirt attached to it. They are the best way of raising awareness, potentially being seen by millions of people. They help get your message seen and recognised all over the world! They are also used as staff uniforms for many companies, and using t-shirts as giveaways is a proven successful form of free marketing.

But can the t-shirt evolve even more? Considering how versatile it already is, it’s hard to imagine, but I personally wouldn’t rule it out.

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