A Brief History of the T-Shirt

A Brief History of the T-Shirt

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.

Textile printing around 1890
Textile printing around 1890. Fabrics were not yet seen as a means of self-expression, but as decoration. The patterns still had to be stamped onto the fabric by hand.

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.

Marlon Brando in 951, in "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Marlon Brando, 1951, in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Athena LaTrelle “Marlon Brando, Sexy Icon” CC BY-ND)

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.

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#katherinehamnett #katherinehamnettshirt #Icons #fashioncult #chooselife #chooselove 1. Katherine Hamnett en una imagen que se convirtió en noticia de portada y espejo de su tiempo, una perpleja Margaret Thatcher, que había invitado a representantes de la moda británica a una recepción en Downing Street, le estrecha la mano a la diseñadora intentando no fijar la mirada en el eslogan pacifista que esta lleva impreso en su camiseta blanca oversize: “58% Don’t Want Pershing” (“el 58% no quiere Pershing”), un mensaje que aludía a la decisión del Gobierno de permitir desplegar misiles estadounidenses Pershing en bases británicas. 2. En 1989, en la cima de su fama y al frente de un negocio que facturaba millones de libras, la diseñadora tuvo la ocurrencia de realizar una auditoría sobre el impacto medioambiental y social de la industria textil, y lo que descubrió la dejó petrificada. “Lo encargué pensando que no habría nada malo y me encontré una pesadilla”: condiciones de trabajo “peores que la esclavitud”, contaminación del suministro de agua, emisión de gases de efecto invernadero. Su cruzada fue como un grito en el desierto y, ante la imposibilidad de producir sus colecciones con los criterios éticos que consideraba irrenunciables, cerró la marca en 2004. 3. En 2017 resucitó su firma con una colección de hombre y de mujer, y con una línea de camisetas-protesta. Todas las prendas están confeccionadas en Italia, de forma sostenible y con materiales como algodón orgánico o poliéster reciclado. “El activismo está integrado en las propias piezas”, apunta. Los beneficios de algunas de sus camisetas, además, van dirigidos íntegramente a causas como la ayuda a los refugiados.

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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.

View of the production hall from Spreadshirt
View of the production hall from Spreadshirt in Czech Republic. In digital printing, the shirts just need to be placed in the machine and run through the automated printing program. After printing, the shirts are put into a huge dryer so that the ink can bind with the fabric.

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.

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