We may not see T-shirts in the Haute Couture runways, but we all wear them. Boy, girl; black, white; gay, straight; you, me and everyone in between – except, maybe, the Pope. Very few items of clothing are as versatile. One can dress them up and dress them down and if you pick the right size it will always look good on you.
This tube of fabric has become an essential garment in everyday life, but how did it get into our drawers? Have you ever wondered what’s the T-shirt’s story? Today I’ll try to shed some light on the past of this practical item.
The T-shirt’s ancestor can be traced back to the 19th century. Created in the US, it was a full body suit that was unfortunately named “Union Suit” – think of it as a scuba diver’s attire made out of cotton. Women were the first ones to wear the one-piece as underwear, then men quickly adopted it too.
As you can imagine, wearing a full-body piece underneath clothes is not overly comfortable so, unsurprisingly, someone at some point finally said “enough” and cut the garment in half, giving birth to the T-shirt we know and love today.
Thanks to the fact that they were cheap and easy to clean they became popular quickly. The first people to wear the T-shirt on the outside were farmers, construction workers and soldiers – people who had to do hard labour in the open field. Since the social norm required them to cover their torsos, the T-shirt seemed like a good compromise because it allowed them to stay fresh and “proper” at the same time.
Still, it didn’t really reach the general public until Marlon Brandon showcased his acting skills (and biceps) wearing a tight white T-shirt in the movie A Streetcar Named Desire. It took the power of Hollywood to make the world turn around and realise the potential the T-shirt had as an outerwear garment. The rest is history.
Every decade has had their own rendition of the T-shirt ever since. In the 60s the potential they had as canvases for cartoon characters, brands and whichever other element a marketing genius might come up with was discovered.
During the 70s fluorescent colours and dyes were all the rage (we’re still recovering from that one). And during the 80s a TV Show called Miami Vice taught us that a plain T-shirt could look dashing if you pair it up with an Armani suit.
In the 90s and the 00s, printing techniques like screen printing and direct to garment printing (DTG) have evolved non-stop, giving designers and the public in general an infinite number of possibilities to express themselves.
If you want to read my articles on the history of screen printing and DTG you can do so here and here.
So where will the future take us? There have long been talks about T-shirts used as screens and fabrics that can read our body stats. Only time will tell, but in the mean time, let’s speculate: what do you think the T-Shirt of the future will look like?