The T-Shirt – From Comfortable Undergarment to Pop Culture Status Symbol

T-shirts adorn the bodies of everyone from babies to pensioners and never has there been a fashion craze that has influenced so many people.

Whilst wearing a t-shirt as an undergarment has been around for centuries, it wasn’t brought to the mainstream until WWI when American soldiers noticed that their European counterparts were wearing cotton undershirts beneath their uniforms. Due to the comfort and convenience of the undershirts, they quickly became popular amongst the Americans and by the 1920s the word “t-shirt” had taken its place as an official word in the American dictionary.

By WWII the t-shirt had become standard issue in the army and navy as underwear but it wasn’t until the 1950s when the attitude towards the t-shirt changed due to the portrayal of the garment in American movies. Marlon Brando appeared in a plain white t-shirt in A Street Car Named Desire in 1951 turning it into cult status as an outerwear garment. In 1953 James Dean turned the t-shirt into a symbol of rebelliousness in Rebel Without A Cause and Marlon Brando continued this theme in 1953 in the movie The Wild One. Elvis Presley also appeared in many of his films and publicity shots wearing a t-shirt underscoring the popularity of the garment.

The Ringer T-shirt (collars and ends of sleeves in contrasting colours to the t-shirt) became popular in the 1960s as did the hippie art of tie-dying and screen printing. The iron-on transfer also became popular in the 1960s, giving people authority to design their own t-shirts. The peace symbol was one of the most popular images featured on t-shirts in the 1960s.

The iron-on transfer was developed even further in the 1970s with a revolution in the quality of graphics. Now, people were able to produce t-shirts with realistic graphic images. One of the earliest and most popular t-shirts with a photo realistic transfer was of Farrah Fawcett of TV’s Charlie’s Angels fame. This t-shirt was the most popular t-shirt in 1977.

T-shirts featuring brand names and logos became popular in the 1980s allowing the wearers to show their designer taste as well as the emergence of bold slogans on t-shirts. Promoters of concerts and sporting events also discovered the billion dollar industry of merchandise sales by selling t-shirts to promote their tours and events.

Popular figures such as Che Guevera are emblazoned on t-shirts now making him one of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century even though the wearers themselves may be unfamiliar with who he was or what he stood for.

The latest t-shirts are also lending themselves to humourous slogan and ironic statements and celebrities such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are often seen wearing t-shirts which seem to reflect back on themselves. Political slogans on t-shirts coinciding with presidential elections have also become popular as well as customising your own t-shirt.

Whilst t-shirts were once worn only as casual wear, they are no becoming more acceptable in the corporate world especially for women due to the more fitted variety of t-shirts available. Many organisations partake in “Casual Fridays” or “Jeans for Genes” enabling employees to wear t-shirts in the work environment.

The t-shirt has come a long way since its humble beginnings but no matter how old you are or what your attitude is to life – there is bound to be a t-shirt that reflects who you are.

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