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The Definitive History of the T-Shirt
Today, the modern t-shirt has spawned a huge textile and fashion industry that is worth more than two billion dollars in global retail sales. The alleged birth of the t-shirt was a rather remarkable event, but this humble garment was to change the style and fashions of cultures for generations to come. Ultimately, the t-shirt is used as a political tool for protest and, at certain times and places in history, a symbol of revolution and change.
At first, the t-shirt was little more than a piece of underwear, where it was very useful. In the late 19th century, the Union suit, (also popularly known as Long Johns) was in its heyday, worn throughout America and northern parts of Europe. Common across class and generation, this modest piece of cloth covered the entire body, from the neck to the hands and feet. The pièce de résistance designs included a blow-up box on the back for ease of use in the old house. When cotton became widely available, underwear manufacturers took the opportunity to create an alternative to this basic, heavy-duty design. Knitted material is difficult to cut and sew seams, and therefore with cotton can begin a radical change in mass fashion.
Times were changing in Europe, as Americans continued to sweat and itch, a simple “T-shaped” template was cut twice from cotton fabric and the two pieces were sewn together facing each other in a European workshop. It was half a pair of long wells, but it soon took on a life of its own. As the Industrial Revolution reached its inevitable conclusion, Henry T. Ford created the world’s first production line, the ideas of functionality, efficiency and utilitarian style entered the mainstream consciousness of societies around the world and especially in Europe. Many questioned the Puritanism of the past, Victorian ideas of modesty were replaced by bathing suits, long skirts, and shorter sleeved shirts. As World War I loomed, the T-shirt was being drafted into the army.
Historical researchers date the first recorded instance of the introduction of the T-shirt to the United States during World War I, when American soldiers noted a light cotton waistcoat that was issued to European soldiers as standard uniform. American soldiers were fired, their government still issued woolen clothing, it was not a fashion, it was practically a tactical military flaw. How could a sniper keep calm and aim his rifle with beads of sweat in his eyes and an itch that wouldn’t go away? The US military may not have reacted as quickly as their troops would have liked, but the highly practical and lightweight t-shirt will soon be making its way back to the mainstream American consumer.
Due to their highly recognizable shape and the desire to find a better name, the word “t-shirt” was born, and as the word found its place in the cultural lexicon, people around the world embraced the new, more comfortable alternative. union shirt. Several American experts claim that the name originated in 1932 when Howard Jones commissioned “Jockey” to design a new sweatshirt for the USC Trojans football team. But the US Army believes that the origin of this word comes from the training jackets of the army, because it was the military that for a long time provided this abbreviation. There is an alternative theory that is little known and very graphic in its interpretation. Originally the idea that the shortened arms resembled the torsos of amputees, a common sight in the bloody battles of the past, although this assumption cannot be verified, this idea has a thick ring of truth. During World War II, the t-shirt was finally issued as underwear for all ranks in the US Army and Navy. Although the t-shirt was intended as an undergarment, soldiers engaged in rigorous war games or construction work, and especially those living in warmer climates, often wore a closed t-shirt. On July 13, 1942, the cover story of Life magazine featured a photo of a soldier wearing a T-shirt with the words “Air Corps Rifle School.”
In the first few years after World War II, the European fashion for wearing T-shirts as outerwear, largely inspired by the new uniforms of the US Army, spread to the American civilian population. In 1948, the New York Times reported on a new and unique marketing tool for that year’s campaign for New York Governor Thomas Dewey. It was the first recorded “slogan t-shirt” that read “Dew It for Dewey,” which was closely echoed by Dwight Eisenhower’s famous “I Like Ike” t-shirts during the presidential campaign.
In the early 1950s, business firms based in Miami, Florida began emblazoning T-shirts with the names of Floridian resorts and even cartoon characters. The first recorded graphic t-shirt catalog was created by Tropix Togs, created by its creator and founder, Miami entrepreneur Sam Cantor. They were the original licensees of Walt Disney characters that included Mickey Mouse and Davy Crockett. Other companies later expanded into the T-shirt printing business, including Sherry Manufacturing, also located in Miami.
Sherry started the business in 1948, owner and founder Quinton Sandler was quick to spot the new t-shirt trend and soon expanded the screen scarf company into the largest licensed print apparel manufacturer in the United States. Soon more celebrities were seen on national television wearing this dangerous new outfit, including John Wayne and Marlon Brando. In 1955, James Dean gained confidence in the street t-shirt in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause. The t-shirt quickly became a modern symbol of rebellious youth. The initial outrage and public outcry soon subsided, and in time even the American Bible Belt was able to see the practical application of its design.
In the 1960s, people began to color block and screen print the basic cotton t-shirt, which became an even bigger commercial success. Advances in printing and dying allowed for more variety and the Tank Top, Muscle Curt, Scoop Neck, V-Neck and many other t-shirt variations came into fashion. During this period of cultural experimentation and evolution, many independent t-shirt printers produced copies of “Guerrillero Heroic or Heroic Guerrilla”, the famous portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara taken by Alberto “Corda” Diaz. Since then, it is said to be the most reproduced image in the history of photography, largely thanks to the rise of the T-shirt.
The 1960s also saw the creation of the “Ringer” T-shirt, which became a staple of youth and rock-n-rollers fashion. The decade also saw the emergence of the tie and screen printing on the basic t-shirt. In 1959, “Plastisol”, a more durable and stretchable ink, was invented, allowing for more variety in t-shirt designs. As textile technologies improved, new t-shirt styles were soon introduced, including the tank top, the A-shirt (known as the “woman’s shirt”), the muscle shirt, scoop necks, and of course the V-neck.
During the Psychedelic era, including more and more house experiments, the most iconic t-shirts were designed and created. A long wave of tie-dyed T-shirts has hit the music festival scene in Western Europe and America. In the late 60s, it was practically a required dress code among West Coast hippie culture. Band t-shirts became another very popular form of t-shirt, printed and sold cheaply at concerts and live shows, the tradition continues to this day, band t-shirts are as popular as ever, but their prices have risen significantly. .
In 1975, Vivienne Westwood opened the Sex shop at 430 King’s Road, London, with her new punk-style t-shirts, including her infamous “God Save the Queen” design. Punk introduced an explosion of independent fashion designers and especially t-shirt designers. To this day, many modern designs pay homage to the “grunge” of this rebellious and anarchic era of Western culture.
The influx of corporate funding in the 1980s changed the entire face of the T-shirt market. Slogan t-shirts were becoming more popular, “Choose Life” was created to promote George Michel’s band’s debut album Wham, while “Frankie Says” led to a series of highly controversial singles leading Liverpool’s UK charts. based on the group “Frankie Goes to Hollywood”. Bands, football teams, political parties, advertising agencies, trade convention organizers, in fact anyone after a cheap piece of advertising started running and selling large numbers of t-shirts. A great exception at the time was the now famous “Feed the World” t-shirt, created to raise money and awareness for the Band Aid charity event.
During the 1980s and 1990s, t-shirt production and printing technologies, including the early forms of DTG (garment transfer compatible) printing, greatly improved, increasing volume and availability. While in the financial circles, the stock markets of the world took attention, because the American T-shirt was classified as a commodity in the garment industry.
Branded corporate brands have quickly made their mark in this industry. A new generation of t-shirt designs swept the market, promoting conformity and loyalty to a brand name like Nike rather than an expression of individuality. This very inspiring tradition continues to this day, for example with the current “Vintage 82” t-shirt from “Next”. For several years after its first printing, this design was allowed to flood the market until cheap copies and black market failures flooded the world. There are many similar designs that have the same cultural shelf life.
More recently, an inspired movement to re-politicize the t-shirt has allowed pressure groups and charities to get their message across to a wider audience. In the anti-Iraq demonstrations, over a million people marched in London wearing many anti-war, anti-Bush and anti-Blair clothing. Another example, reminiscent of the earlier Band Aid event, saw the 2005 Poverty History campaign receive global media coverage. Not long after, Vivienne Westwood re-emerged in the t-shirt world with her new “I’m not a terrorist, please don’t arrest me” t-shirt. Catherine Hamnett, another famous British designer, is known for her protest t-shirts, including her work highlighting Third World debt and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Again, Catherine recently quoted that political slogan shirts allow consumers to “feel like they’ve participated in democratic action,” when in fact all they’re doing is shopping for clothes. That may be true, but they still get a lot of media attention for all sorts of righteous reasons.
Over the years, the styles, images and contribution to the free society that t-shirts provide have been taken for granted, the t-shirt is now a staple in every fashionista’s wardrobe, no matter where in the world it is. Even more technical advances in the industry have allowed more choices in style and cut. Oversized knee-length t-shirts are popular with hip-hop and skater fashion. Seasons change, but from time to time the women’s market embraces “cropped” t-shirt styles that are cut short enough to reveal the midriff. The rise of the long sleeve ‘hoodie’ or hoodie cannot be understated, it is also quickly becoming an essential addition to any street fashionista’s collection.
Lately there has been a lot of consumer backlash against the brand compatibility of the corporate and licensed t-shirt market. The consumer is finally regaining a sense of individuality, people today are not satisfied with the concept of “brand loyalty”. People want to reflect their personality, political beliefs, sense of style or humor. Some design their own using a wide selection of online DIY t-shirt printing services, including Cafe Press and Threadless. But many people don’t have the time or inclination to design their own artwork, and this points to the rise of the independent t-shirt designer. Reminiscent of the 1960s, but with the involvement of the whole world, artists, graphic designers, renegades of the fashion world are considered. The greatest asset a modern t-shirt can have is its originality, a quality that will always be in demand now and hopefully in the future.
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