The Origin of the T-shirt

The History of the T-Shirt

Read about the epic, rebellious, and ongoing history of your favorite garment: the t-shirt. Have you ever wondered how the t-shirt came to be such an iconic staple in Australian fashion and culture? Originally designed as an undergarment, the t-shirt has transformed into the most ubiquitous item in apparel — and the most powerful. Read the story of the simple garment that would transform the fashion world, create its own industry in garment decorating, and change the way messages are shared forever.

The origin of the T-Shirt

The t-shirt as we know it today is an apparel staple. The simple garment is so deeply ingrained in world culture that it’s easy to forget that, relatively speaking, the t-shirt itself is quite young. The origins of the t-shirt date back to the late 19th century, when laborers would cut their jumpsuits in half to keep cool in warmer months during the year. 

The first manufactured t-shirt was invented between the Mexican-American War in 1898, and 1913 when the U.S. Navy began issuing them as standard undershirts. Even then, it took until 1920 for the actual term “t-shirt” to be inducted into the English dictionary, thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald being the first person to publish the word in his novel This Side of Paradise.  

 “[The T-shirt] is a really basic way of telling the world who and what you are.” — Dennis Nothdruft

Then came Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Brando, Dean & Co

Though the t-shirt was created in the early 20th century, it was rare to see it worn as anything other than an undershirt. It wasn’t uncommon to see veterans wearing a t-shirt tucked into their trousers post-World War II, but outside of that, t-shirts were almost exclusively used underneath “proper” clothes.

In 1950, Marlon Brando famously donned a white t-shirt as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, only to be followed by James Dean in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause. Thanks to these two founding fathers, the popularity of the t-shirt as a stand-alone outerwear garment skyrocketed.

Not only was the t-shirt as an outer-garment becoming acceptable, but it was also being associated with a movement of rebellion.

“It was rebellious, because T-shirts were actually undergarments … It was a tough political statement,” says Dennis Nothdruft, curator of the exhibition titled T-shirt: Cult — Culture — Subversionwhich showcased the radical history of the t-shirt at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London last year.

Birth of the unisex Tee

During WW2 women took on many roles previously designated to men, and with more manual tasks to tackle, clothing began to cross the gender divide. The Sears catalogue from 1945 shows t-shirts aimed at women. Actresses like Katherine Hepburn also made the fashion for traditionally male attire more popular.

Wearable billboard

In the 1950s the Miami-based company Tropic Togs bought the rights to print Disney images on T-shirts. It became the first business to produce t-shirt advertisements. Its success paved the way for many brand logos and slogans to be printed onto tops. From Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ to cute Hello Kitty, many businesses cashed in on T-shirt advertising, both as a product in its own right and as an effective way of generating greater brand awareness.

The T-Shirt is here to stay

All of this to say, the t-shirt has become not only an American staple, but an essential garment worn around the world, and their unique ability to convey a message hasn’t gone anywhere.

From SNL hosts’ design, t-shirts are proven to be a preferred medium for sharing messages ranging from rebellious to joyful and everything in between.

A modern take of a traditional Tee

At Okthro, as much as we love a classic tee we also know that sometimes you want the comfort and easy-to-wear benefits of a t-shirt but with a little more luxury and style.

Our tees –rich cotton as well as clearer stitching – deliver just that. Soft and versatile, they can be worn every day but always add a touch of elegance and statement to an outfit.

Our origin & harada tee is made from interlocked 100% cotton. With flat seams and a higher neckline, this original true T-shirt style delivers perfect comfort. T-shirts have come a long way from their early Navy days; back then it would have been hard to predict that they would to become such a powerful tool of advertising and allegiance in a way that no other item of clothing has.

Whatever your style, from a sophisticated cotton tee to an ancient and much-loved concert souvenir, there is a t-shirt for us all out there.

July 26, 2021 — Matthew Richardson