The humble T-shirt feels like it has always been with us. It’s the star of many a submarine movie, oil and sweat-stained has aided and abetted everyone onscreen from the late James Dean to Bruce Willis (and also looked good on the female form too.) But avoiding cries of sexism and with the weather now getting more summer-like, let’s meander back to the beginnings of this taken for granted item that has become such a familiar tool to rich and poor alike and blurred the lines of fashion for both of the aforementioned.
The origins of the T-shirt are comparatively modern, having been standard kit developed by the U.S. Navy in 1913 to provide hygienic moisture-absorbing relief for working navy personnel of all ranks. The actual name originates from the appearance of the item as it’s laid out horizontally on a surface for cleaning or folding and with space beneath bunks for stowing gear becoming a premium on ships of the line, it firmly became a favourite item of clothing that could be easily washed and dried even after a dip in the saltiest of seas.
Throughout the 1940’s the T-shirts notoriety spread through the services with troops bartering and paying cash to the indigenous populations of the warmer climbs for these cooling garments often copied and locally manufactured that would help enlisted personnel preserve uniforms and give them something casual to wear whenever furlough permitted. The comfort and sheer durability of the garment coupled with the cost of cheap cotton at home and abroad meant the T-shirt soon caught on as a less scratchy substitute to the full denim shirt and quickly became a general-purpose practical garment of choice when teamed with overalls or work jeans especially among men returning from war.
The role of the T-Shirt in movies was a style young post-war adolescents aspired to emulate such greats as Marlon Brando in the 1953 classic “The Wild One”. This lead to young kids emulating their savvy older brothers and sisters by wearing white or coloured T-shirts and thus a unisex symbol of urban rebellion was born! This has stood the test of time ever since with successive generations of rock idols and their band roadies enforcing this statement.
Let’s take a look at the styles of T-shirts we came to know and love and probably our grandparents hated:
The Plain White T-Shirt
The original and best, widely emulated in quality and quantity worldwide and a sartorial bridge between rich and poor alike. As much of a mainstay to military and non-military personnel as its ever been and being cotton a positive boon in warmer climbs being generally easy to replace, dispose of and serve as everything from a towel to an oily rag. The unisex garment of choice
The Striped T-Shirt
Again a non-modern classic having origins in the 27th March 1858 Act of France which introduced navy and white striped knitted shirts to seamen. These evolved to lighter garments for the warmer climes of Brittany waters, the striking horizontal colours making it easy to see sailors lost or shipwrecked at sea. It was referenced by Coco Chanel and adopted by the beat generation forcing its way into the mainstream and becoming the garment we (and John Paul Gaultier) know and love today.
The Graphic-Print T-Shirt
The shirt that thanks to the screen printing business became the launch platform of a thousand politicians and wannabe rock bands. Beloved as a publicity cause item and cheap to produce they sold and continue to sell in droves emblazoning even the most sunken chest with every slogan and image imaginable! Think Mick Jagger’s red lips on classic black Tee.
The Sleeveless T-Shirt
This is definitely one to sort the men out from the boys and much loved by the gym obsessive across the land. Totally unisex it has become a firm European favourite from beach to trendy bar. Just don’t let anyone wearing one kick sand in your face unless they’re buying you a drink afterwards. Another style that’s prone to slogan and graphics fatigue but can be matched well with light and cooling layers in sunnier climbs.
The Raglan T-Shirt
Love it or hate its design there’s no getting away from the history of this beloved sloppy joe garment. Particularly associated with the sweat-absorbing sport of baseball it is named after 1st. Baron Raglan who lost his arm during the battle of Waterloo and needed a casual garment quickly tailored to offer protection to the injury. The design spread far and wide particularly with emigration from Europe to America in the 19th century.