It is in New York in the early 1900’s that you would have found the pre-cursor of today’s ubiquitous T-Shirt. Originally you would have seen that it buttoned up in the front like the top part of one-piece Long Johns known as a “Union Suit”. The word T-shirt was first recorded in print in 1920, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s début novel, “This Side of Paradise”
In 1938, about the time that nylon became popular, Sears introduced a T-Shirt called the “gob” shirt, which is easily recognized as a T-Shirt by today’s standards. The oldest remaining T-Shirt with a printed slogan on it can be found in the Smithsonian Institute. Emblazoned with “Dew-IT with Dewey” the shirt was a promotional piece for the 1948 presidential campaign of Governor Thomas E. Dewey.
That wasn’t the first time that a T-shirt was printed on however. In 1932, the University of Southern California used t-shirts to stop shoulder pads from chafing athletes. When they became fashionable (and then stolen from the university team), they were printed with a Property of USC logo.
This branding made them even more desirable to students who could then buy them in the Universities bookstore. Savvy marketers jumped on the development – and this particular fashion statement can be seen in the early days of the emerging “teenage” consumer culture.
By the 1950’s the T-shirt had entered main stream culture and versions of it could be seen in Hollywood movies like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Rebel Without a Cause”.
T-Shirts were still working gear in the 1960’s when a new ink was developed that could withstand the daily grind that T-Shirts were accustomed to. During the youthful revolutions of the time, bright colours, tie-dyes and self-expression made a confluence of cultural modes that gave birth to the T-Shirt styles that we are used to seeing today.
Customized T-shirts continued to make the scene throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s and mass production techniques kept pace with the ever-growing demand. During this time it was not uncommon to get a custom made T-Shirt made to order at many a shopping mall kiosk. Rock Bands were also seen to incorporate the T-Shirt into branding and merchandising efforts.
T-Shirts today are no longer the under garment they once were. They are still seen as casual attire but can be made from heavy weight fabrics and feature truly astounding artwork.
With the advent of computer technology, small print runs can be made and only the imagination of the designer limits the extent to the messages they can carry.
Like the carefree ‘60s, today T-Shirts still display messages of self-expression and tribal belonging as well as nostalgic themes and retro designs that throw back to a time long gone.