This is the first in a series of articles relating to the history of the t-shirt in the United States. The first manufacturers, trends and how all that has led us to today’s modern tee.
The t-shirt as we know it first came to the USA during World War I. This was the result of US soldiers taking notice of the lightweight cotton undershirts European soldiers were wearing, while the US soldiers were sweating it out in wool uniforms. Mostly worn under a soldier’s uniform it did not take long until they became an external garment. Worn primarily by navy men for the first thirty years of the 20th century, they became standard issue for all military servicemen in World War II. T-shirts issued during the WWII were white, thus presenting a problem to the Marines who realized that the color made them an easy target. The Marines were not about to give up their t-shirts so they came up with a clever way to disguise them. The Marines used coffee grounds to dye their t-shirts in the battlefield, and were later issued sage-green shirts. Once the war was over they brought them home and the t-shirt was here to stay.
The t-shirts worn in the early 20th century (i.e. 1913-1938) were weighing in at around 1.5 – 2 ounces. Today’s t-shirts can weigh up to 6.1 ounces, but most will fall in around 5.5 ounces. Early champions of the t-shirt movement included Hanes T-Shirts, Fruit of the Loom and Sears Roebuck. Fruit of the Loom did not start to knit t-shirts until around 1938. These early versions were rather rough and uncomfortable compared to what we you can get today. In 1938 Sears introduced a t-shirt for 24 cents and were marketing this shirt as an outer garment or under shirt. The t-shirts produced by these companies were basically replicas of early military issued shirts and had a wider neck and shorter sleeve than today’s full cut shirt. They were also much tighter fitting and this style lasted into the sixties.
Around 1955 with celebrities, Marlon Brando, Elvis, and James Dean being seen in a t-shirt and jeans the youth of America started to scoop-up t-shirts. It was about this time that the t-shirt was no longer considered simply a navy t-shirt but a mainstream product and one that was selling fast. It was also around this time that the t-shirt style began to resemble what we know today. The neck of the shirt became tighter, next the overall length longer, but the shorter sleeve remained for a time. This can be attributed to the fact that the t-shirt was considered a man’s garment. Modern day t-shirts have no end to the number of styles available. You will find all different styles and cuts for men, women, children, and even infants. Blank t-shirts, screen printed, heat transferred, embroidered, airbrushed, tye-dyed, there truly is no end to what can be done with this amazing clothing item. From 500 million shirts sold in 1985 to well over a billion in 2005 the t-shirt is a big part of our world.