A blank canvas with infinite potential, the T-shirt is without doubt the most ubiquitous garment worn today. It’s garment that we all take for granted, and give little thought to its origin. We all know the roots of our denim jeans, our crewneck sweaters and our leather jackets, but the T-shirt is somewhat shrouded in mystery. From a nondescript underwear garment worn on the fields to an issued military staple, it continued to evolve. Following the war years, it became a signifier of rebellion and sexual freedom before being favoured by every brand that resides on the clothing spectrum, from street to high fashion and everywhere in-between.

The T-shirt can trace its roots to a thankfully near-extinct underwear garment, the union suit. Patented in 1868 in New York, it was worn by men and women who worked in the fields, factories, mines and docklands beneath their work clothes during winter as an extra layer of insulation. Now referred to as a “onesie,” the union suit reached from the neck to the ankles and was cut from either wool or cotton with a front buttoned placket and the notorious rear buttoned-flap—a necessity for obvious reasons.

In 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company recognised the flaws and potential in the union suit and introduced a line of bachelor suits—effectively splitting the garment into a top and bottom. Still considered underwear, the new two-piece allowed breathability and was de rigueur for working men and women throughout much of the early-20th century. The top section of the bachelor suit eventually became the henley, which takes its name from the Henley Royal Regatta, the prestigious rowing meeting held in England each year. The underwear garment became a sporting essential, favoured for its flexibility, moisture-wicking properties and easy customization to match team colors.

The henley transitioned from sportswear to military when the US Navy issued buttonless undershirts to its troops in 1913. A few years earlier, the Hanes company landed a military contract and began producing a short sleeve iteration for Marines stationed in tropical climates, as henley’s were simply too hot, arguably “inventing” the T-shirt. American troops played a key role in pushing the garment for activewear to leisure wear as they returned home from the war and adopted the piece into their everyday wardrobes. The round-neck garment slowly became acceptable in certain parts of society but was still generally considered far too informal. While US G.I.’s in no doubt played a large part in the T-shirt’s nascent popularity, Coco Chanel’s inclusion of the French Navy’s iconic Breton stripe shirt in her 1917 collections no doubt played a large part in introducing the garment to fashion circles across the globe.

The T-shirt’s most poignant moment, though, came during World War II. Founded in 1932, Velva-Sheen, began as a humble producer of sweats and T-shirts for college campuses, but quickly developed a relationship with the US Army, and landed a contact as the de-facto manufacturer of standard issue T-shirts during the war—while Hanes still produced for the military, they began to focus on other cotton basics including underwear and hosiery. Fueled by the surging power of wartime news media, the T-shirt’s general acceptance and popularity grew exponentially. With US troops stationed across world, photographs in newspapers and video clips on television were pumped out en masse stateside in a bid to boost morale surrounding the war effort. A common sight were off-duty, heroic troopers enjoying Lucky Strikes, playing cards, laughing, relaxing and, more often than not in tight-fitting white Velva-Sheen T-shirts.

Following the end of the war in 1945, America’s heroes returned home and resumed their place within society. With a global sense of positivity and shared optimism, codes of dress relaxed and the T-shirt was further cemented as a wardrobe must have. While Velva-Sheen were military standard issue, their tubular construction—a round knit that removes a side seam—proved too costly for civilian use, and by 1950 Hanes established itself as America’s white T-shirt par none. Alongside veterans, Cinema too was a key player in the T-shirt’s sudden widespread appeal No one was a greater ambassador for casually wearing the T-shirt than Hollywood heartthrob Marlon Brando. Brando, then a relatively unknown talent, starred in the seminal Broadway play and later in the box office hit A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). The decision to portray Brando in a dirty white T-shirt and Levis denim jeans was a bold move, as the garment still had ungracious connotations. Nevertheless, Brando, with his effortless cool and overtly masculine demeanour, single-handedly changed the overall global perception of the T-shirt. Four years later, James Dean took the reigns and wore one in his breakthrough role in A Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Hollywood was at its peak, and T-shirts were a frequent sight on stars such as Steve McQueen, Elvis, Paul Newman and so forth, who all made what was originally an underwear garment undeniably cool.

At the same time, significant advancements in the arts and printing, specifically silkscreen printing, coincided with a booming global economy and increased quality of life. Pop Art was taking over, and branding was bigger, bolder and brighter than ever before. As such, T-shirts started to become emblazoned with colorful type and eye-catching branding. They became an invincible tool to convey messages—both positive or negative. As if over night, the T-shirt was no longer a plain white garment, but a billboard for anyone and everyone. It wasn’t long before everyone from the Rolling Stones to Coca-Cola began to capitalise on the T-shirt as a marketing tool.

By the end of the 20th century, wearing a T-shirt in public was commonplace. The late 1980s and early 1990s paved the way for the emergence of streetwear, with brands such as Stüssy and later Supreme cultivating an unprecedented cult following over their limited T-shirts. Similarly, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, two of the first luxury brands to understand the benefits of selling casual sportswear, began selling T-shirts by the boatload.

Today, every single luxury house offers a T-shirt in some variety. From the absolutely fail-proof plain white T-shirt cut from a luxurious blend of silk and cashmere courtesy of Haider Ackermann, to a highly complex embroidered design by Saint Laurent crafted to an impeccable standard in a Parisian workshop, the breadth of design, material and quality is astronomical and the boundaries are being constantly pushed. The T-shirt appeals to all of mankind, regardless of gender, class, physique or race, it is the global unifier.

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Tags: t-shirts, hanes, supreme, know-your-clothes