The T-shirt is arguably the most popular piece of clothing the world has ever known. It’s an everyday companion, a hallmark of simplicity, and a canvas for the wearer’s loves and beliefs. But how did it become what it is today?
The T-shirt’s success story begins with the industrial revolution in the 19th century. The mechanical loom and cotton-spinning machinery accelerated the production of cotton yarn and fabric weaving. Clothing could now be produced faster, cheaper and in larger quantities. There was still a long way to go before the printed T-shirt would become a fashion sensation, but in just a few decades, the T would become a major means of self-expression.
From underwear to outerwear
Sailors were probably the first people to wear T-shirt-like tops: The typical rigging shirt was a long-sleeved, loosely fitting shirt with collar and V neckline. But who made the first short-sleeved shirt? Chances are either the British Royal Navy or the US Navy was the first to create a “T-shaped undershirt”. As the name suggests, T-shirts were initially worn as underwear – and it was totally embarrassing to show your underwear in public.
But who made the T-shirt a presentable top? Through television, cinema and pop culture, the humble undershirt found its way into the strong arms of Marlon Brando and James Dean (the “Sexiest Men Alive” of the 1940s and 50s). And so it also found a place in the hearts of all those who saw their films. Denim jeans and a white undershirt became the ultimate rebellious look.
Dew it with Dewey
During the 1948 U.S. presidential election, candidate Thomas Dewey had the brilliant idea of printing his message on shirts. T-shirts became his walking election posters. Although Dewey lost the election, the shirt printed with his picture and the slogan “Dew it with Dewey” would go down in history as the first-ever printed T-shirt. It can still be admired today in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.
Go digital! The T-Shirt Liberation Front
For a while, Dewey’s slogan shirt remained an exception in terms of T-shirt printing. This was mainly due to the limitations of printing at the time: screen printing was expensive and the ink washed out quickly. From the 60s, plot printing entered the scene. This involved cutting out colored foils and pressing them onto the shirt layer by layer, adhering them through high pressure and heat. Since the 1960s and 70s, various groups – hippies, rock fans, anti-war activists – have used T-shirts to spread their messages to the world. But companies and designers would soon discover printed T-shirts for themselves and take the fashion industry by storm.
The mother of all slogan shirts: Katherine Hamnett
Katherine Hamnett is the British fashion designer we all have to thank for slogan T-shirts reaching the catwalk, as well as the popular torn-jean trend. In 1984 she wore a shirt proclaiming “58% Don’t Want Pershing” during an audience with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (referring to Pershing missiles). Thatcher had permitted the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in Britain, although the majority of Brits were against it. According to Hamnett, Thatcher let off a horrible scream at the sight of the shirt.
The designer is still known today for her political activism in fashion – and for her slogan shirts. Hamnett is also responsible for women starting to make T-shirts their own. (Thanks Katherine, we love you!)
I Heart T-Shirts
Since the 70s, companies have been using plot printing to produce T-shirts as a means of advertisement. Fortunately, a few resourceful folks developed long-lasting textile dyes and others figured out textile printers. Digital printing became possible in the mid-90s—and we’ve enjoyed fully automatic, program-controlled printing ever since.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Nowadays, digital printing makes it possible for you to decide for yourself what you want on your shirt. Can you guess what the most famous T-shirt design is? It’s the classic “I Heart N.Y.” (I love New York)! Whatever, wherever, or whomever you love, you can wear your love on your sleeve thanks to our beloved companion: the T-shirt.