Just about everyone on the planet has at least one T shirt in their drawers. For some, it’s the only kind of top they own. For others, it’s nothing more than a protective layer to go under your dress shirt.
For most of us, though, it’s our favorite thing to wear when we are lounging around the house or just want to wear a casual but fun outfit. The T shirt is probably the single most versatile item of clothing you will ever own.
It can be dressed up in an outfit professional enough for work or fashionable enough for the runway or dressed down for a comfy but still adorable look. As ordinary and everyday as the T shirt might seem, there is probably a lot of surprising information you don’t know.
Read on to learn 14 weird facts about the T shirt. Get to know that always a dependable friend in your wardrobe a little better.
The T Shirt evolved out of an earlier, now almost extinct ancestor—the union suit. The union suit was a form of full body underwear that was worn by both men and women underneath their clothing as early as the 17th century (although the name “union suit” didn’t arrive until the 19th century).
Because this underwear was too hot to wear in the summer, a variation was eventually designed: the Long Johns. Long Johns are essentially what happens when you cut a Union Suit in half. Now you’ve got a button up shirt on top and a pair of underpants on a bottom. It was still a form of underwear.
In hotter climates, the sleeves of the shirt were shortened and the tedious buttons were removed when they realized stretchable cotton could be used to make a shirt that pulled right over the head.
Because this new T Shirt was designed as a form of underwear, it was actually considered crass or rude to wear it in public. If our ancestors saw us walking down the street in a T shirt today, they would react as if they had just seen someone walking down the street in nothing but a bra and underwear.
In fact, it was so obscene that some places made it illegal to wear them in public! If this was the 19th century, you could get arrested for walking outside in nothing but a T shirt!
Back in the 19th century when the T shirt first appears, mass production was still not yet available everywhere or for every product. While fabric could be produced in a factory, the intricate sewing skills needed to make an actual piece of clothing needed to be done by hand.
How many T shirts do you think you would own if you had to get each one of them made for you by a professional tailor? On the bright side, at least you know they would all have the most perfect fit ever.
During World War I, the T shirt was still considered underwear but, when war surrounds you, dress codes don’t seem quite as important. The T shirt was a standard part of the underwear in the Navy (and other military) uniforms at this point.
Those who were working on submarines had to work in crowded closed quarters where it got hot and stuffy. They began to remove their itchy wool uniforms and started to work in nothing but their T shirts (and pants)—how risqué!
The trend spread rapidly among the other branches of the military and by the end of World War II, so many soldiers were returning from war, dawning their T shirts as an ordinary part of their casual attire that it started to gain popularity—especially among impressionable teens.
So you can thank our good old men in uniform for making the T shirt an acceptable part of our wardrobe to expose—oh, and also for our freedom, I guess.
Yes, the T shirt has even rubbed shoulders with the literary greats throughout history. In the 1920 novel, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald mentioned T Shirts as one of the items that a character takes to university. This marks the first time the word appeared in print.
Soon after, the English language made things official with our new friend when the Merriam Webster’s dictionary officially added an entry for the word “T shirt” later on in the same decade.
While the T shirt as outerwear was growing in popularity among soldiers and working men like coal miners and factory workers, it was still not quite accepted by mainstream society as an everyday piece of clothing—except, of course, as underwear.
But in 1951, all that would change when an irresistibly hunky Marlon Brando appeared in the Hollywood hit, A Streetcar Named Desire, wearing nothing but a T shirt to cover his muscular chest. This would launch a craze that quickly pushed the T shirt further into the mainstream—and made it a sexy piece of attire.
The T Shirt would see another surge in popularity when America’s favorite bad boy, James Dean wore it in the 1955 film, Rebel without a Cause. After this film’s release, the T shirt would become the official uniform of the rebel or bad boy (as witnessed later on in Grease).
Around the time the T shirt started becoming a craze, companies struggled to make their T shirts stand out from the rest. The geniuses at Tropix Togs figured out the key to winning the game when they bought exclusive rights to print Mickey Mouse and his pals on the fronts of their T shirts. The world would never look back.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that bands started realizing the great potential of the T shirt. Bands like Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, and Pink Floyd started printing their now iconic album artwork onto T shirts and the habit took off.
Once the T shirt had been successfully used for advertising brands and merchandising bands, it wasn’t long before the revolution-loving youth of the 60s realized the T shirt’s potential for broadcasting political statements. The now ubiquitous Chavez shirt was born at this time, among others.
Between the LSD and the free spirit attitude, it’s probably no surprise that hippies invented the tie dye trend. Although, it was, probably not surprisingly, orchestrated by the failing Rit Dye Company which was looking for a new market and a new way to boost their stagnating profits.
They started selling trippy tie dyed T shirts at Woodstock in 1969 and the hippie movement ate them up (not literally). This was the moment when the world realized T shirts no longer had to be just white.
In the 1970s, the T shirt takes on yet another role as a comedian when the first ironic T shirt is printed. What was the first joke a T shirt told, you ask? Well, it had a mock tuxedo printed on the front. Get your own variation on the original Tuxedo T Shirt so you can wear your own piece of T shirt history.
Most people (at least those of us born before the internet really took off) probably won’t be surprised to learn that the “I <3 so-and-so” slogan started with those tourist T shirts from New York.
But who would guess that such a simple design would spark decades of people “hearting” various things (and the trend of actually saying “I heart” instead of “I love”)? So, thanks, T Shirt, for breaking our grammar.
After starting out as underwear that you would never think of wearing in public and then doing a stint as the working man’s go-to outfit and then becoming the iconic symbol of the rebel, who would have guessed the T shirt would ever actually become part of a respectable, professional wardrobe?
Well, thanks to the hardworking cops on Miami Vice back in the 80s, the T shirt was finally able to clean up its act.
After a small time T shirt company launched its T shirt with a print of three wolves howling at the moon, some internet troll wrote a humorous Amazon review and this led to thousands of other humorous reviews and an inexplicable number of people ordering the shirt. The viral and maniacal potential of the internet had officially been unleashed onto the world in the early 2000s.
As you can see, the T shirt has been there for many of the most important parts of American history and just as that history shaped us, it shaped the T shirt. So next time you put the old dependable on, make sure you wear it with pride!