Every day, billions of people around the world pull on a T-shirt. Like uniforms, T-shirts can express group identity by displaying shared political or cultural ideas or allegiances.
The T-shirt began as military underwear in the late 1800s. When this plain, practical garment was adopted by 1950s Hollywood ‘rebels’ like Marlon Brando, it immediately shot to fashion stardom.
In the 1960s, printing technology transformed the T-shirt into a powerful communication tool.
T-shirts are now the global unisex uniform for the top half of the body. Ironically, they actually began life as military underwear in the late 19th century. They were first worn by sailors in the United States Navy during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
During World War II, the US Army gave the T-shirt its classic form with the ‘T-Type Shirt’. Being comfortable, cheap to make, and easy to care for, it was quickly adopted by other armies. T-shirts began to be worn as outerwear, particularly in sweltering theatres of war such as the Pacific.
T-shirts were a huge part of army surplus after World War II. Combined with jeans and bomber jackets, they eventually became a new uniform for civilians.
The T-shirt really came into its own in the 1950s when it was worn by Hollywood actors Marlon Brando and James Dean. Movie-goers were shocked to see them essentially wearing their underwear on the big screen. They infused the T-shirt with sex appeal and youthful rebelliousness.
T-shirts as billboards
Mass-produced printed T-shirts became possible in the 1960s with the invention of the silk-screening process. Protest T-shirts began to surface, initially with the US anti-war movement of the 1960s. By the 1970s, T-shirts were being used worldwide by causes such as gay pride, civil rights, the equal rights movement, and environmental pressure groups. Today, T-shirts still carry important messages, but may also simply bear a light-hearted joke or maker's logo.