According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the T-Shirt is “a collarless short-sleeved or sleeveless usually cotton undershirt or outer shirt of similar design.” But the T-Shirt is much more than that in the eyes of people all over the world. When looking into the origins of both the word and the T-Shirt itself, most reference material states that the undergarment dates back to the 19th century sometime between the Spanish-American War and 1913.
The most common origin story starts with a form of undergarment called the “union suit” that was usually but not always made from red flannel material. The union suits did a fantastic job of keeping you warm in the winter, but when the summer months came around they were torturously hot. So someone came up with the idea of cutting the one-piece undergarment in half which made a significant difference. This eventually became what we know now as “Long Johns.”
Even with the suit cut in half, it was still flannel fabric and was incredibly warm for those doing manual labor in the hot sun. The exact date is unknown, but sometime in the mid-19th-century textile companies started experimenting with softer, more breathable fabrics that would stretch back in shape and therefore be more comfortable to wear. What resulted was the creation of undershirts made from cotton and sometimes wool that could be pulled over your head without fear of ruining the collar, and most importantly without the need of buttons.
Apparently, by 1905 the U.S. Navy started handing out slip-on crew-neck white cotton shirts that were short sleeved and designed to be worn under their uniforms. It quickly caught on with other forms of the military, especially those working in submarines and other work parties. The reason for this popularity was that the working men could take off their uniform jacket and not worry about getting it all dirty. Instead, just the plain white T-Shirt and that could be easily washed.
Before long the T-Shirt was used as an undershirt for most workers in various industries like mining, and agriculture. By 1920 it started to become more common with the American people so Merriam-Webster officially added the word “T-Shirt” to their dictionary. What really launched it into the mainstream was when Hollywoods leading men like Marlon Brando and James Dean wore them in the iconic films from the 1950’s such as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Rebel Without A Cause.”
Around this time the T-shirt started to become more commonly used as an outer garment versus just an undershirt. Young boys wore them to play and do chores because that’s what their mothers made them wear due to the inexpensive and easy to clean cotton material. Teenagers wore them because it was “the cool thing to do.” And before long the T-shirt was the ideal general purpose casual piece of clothing that could be seen almost anywhere.
There is a small debate as to when the earliest documented design printed T-Shirt was first created. Some accredit “The Wizard of Oz,” which was released in 1939, when the workers that were “restuffing” the Scarecrow were wearing bright green shirts with the word “OZ” written in big white letters on the front. Others give credit to the Air Corps Gunnery School when their T-Shirt design graced the cover of Life Magazine in 1942.
By the early 1960’s the graphic-T market became the perfect form of self-expression and could be used both in advertising or in protest of something you believed in. Major marketing gurus like Walt Disney started to capitalize on the T-shirts by adding prints of his characters like Mickey Mouse and selling them as souvenirs. This would eventually lead to the multi-billion dollar T-Shirt market we know today with all sorts of variations in the cut and fabric used. And the rest, as they say, is history.