We like funny t-shirts, offensive t shirts and cool t shirts.... in fact we like all t-shirts so here is a history of the humble cotton tee shirt.
A T-shirt is much more than a cheap article of clothing, the t shirt is a portable advert with it's wearer declaring their political, musical or social affiliations for everyone to see. T-shirts will never go out of fashion because they are cheap, cool and comfortable. As a walking billboard provocative tee shirts and funny t-shirts inspire reaction, be it shocking, controversial or humorous images or graphics that offend or amuse or simply make a statement. The t shirt started off as a piece of underwear and thanks to teen idols like Marlon Brando and James Dean the tee has become standard wear for the young and the graphics, slogans and logo's have all had their part to play in maintaining this status. Cool t-shirts were in.
Opinions on were the t-shirt originated are divided. T-shirts definitely started out as underwear but some think that T-shirts started out in the First World War when American soldiers copied Europeans who wore them under their uniforms to keep warm and the U.S. troops started calling them T-shirts because of their shape.
Others maintain that the first record of the t shirt's existence is in 1899 when a plain white cotton shirt formed part of the US Navy uniform. What is known however is that by the 1930's white T-shirts became standard sporting wear for many American universities while in 1939 printed t-shirts were, for the first time, used with slogans and logo's as part of the promotion for the film The Wizard of Oz although they were not very popular at the time, these were the first funny t-shirts printed.
After the second world war the practice of putting graphics on t shirts became widespread but during the war GI's posted to the Pacific had worn t-shirts, then known as "T-types", as outerwear to help them cope with the tropical heat. Most of the tee's were plain white but others were printed with the names of camps or divisions - the idea of a t-shirt as a kind of uniform was born.
In the 60's people began to tie dye and screenprint the basic cotton T-Shirt making it an even bigger commercial success. Advances in printing and dying allowed more variety and the Tank Top, Muscle Shirt, Scoop Neck, V-Neck, and many other variations of the T-Shirt came in to fashion. T-shirts were soon seized upon by marketing professionals all over the world. In 1965 Budweiser was the first to use the t shirt as a widespread marketing tool, and companies have been producing funny T-shirts with logo's and slogans ever since.
The T-Shirt was inexpensive, in style, and could make any statement you cared to print. The American T-Shirt came into it's own during the late sixties and seventies. Rock and Roll bands began to realize that they could make significant amounts of money selling their T-Shirts. Professional Sports caught on and soon the officially licensed T-Shirt became hot merchandise.
While Tee shirts became acceptable as everyday clothing in the 1970's it was punk rock that really sealed their position as the standard clothing of a disenfranchised youth. Designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren chose the t-shirt as a uniform for their followers. "The t shirt was the foundation, the one thing that defined a look, if you were dealing with the street culture of the new generation. The T-shirt was the beginning of every shop we had in London. We always started with ' What's the T-shirt going to look like ? ' That was the defining moment"
Wearing a t shirt is the simplest, cheapest and easiest way to make a statement about your state of mind". Just as Brando, in black leather and a plain white cool T-shirt, and the chain-smoking, T-shirt wearing James Dean had both played their part in making it essential wear for a cool, rebellious youth, punk sealed the t-shirts status as acceptable clothing for the new generation of rebels.
The beauty of T-shirt design is the love at first sight nature of the idea/buyer relationship, from the coolest, funkiest graphic to the most profound philosophy. Since about 1990 the shape of the tee shirt has evolved to outsize, unisex baggy clothing as well as tight and skimpy t-shirts. Amusingly, a new trend in Japan has random English words on T-shirts which usually don't actually make any sense but sell well in Asia. But it's tough in tshirt land as one proud American owner of a t-shirt bought in Japan with some rather nice Japanese writing on it later discovered that it in fact said "fucking stupid American tourist"
Everyone has a favourite t-shirt because the tee remains, literally, a cool thing to wear.The t-shirt is inexpensive, always in fashion and is a great way to make a statement with a slogan, logo or picture.