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How t-shirts changed the world

January 24, 2012 Tom Burtingdon

Who can forget the iconic Che Guevara shirts or the simple “Flash” T-shirt that Freddy Mercury wore during his concerts? Nobody can say that they don’t know what a t-shirt is and that they never wore one! Perhaps,  t-shirts are the most sold piece of designer’s clothing ever! However, things was never always like this!  So, if you want to know how t-shirts changed the world, then read on!

The “Classic” t-shirt definition and a bit of history

Your basic t-shirt is defined by being usually cotton made and knit together in a jersey stitch to make it really soft – unlike your shirts. Now, you all know that t-shirts can be found in all shapes and sizes, but are they as old as the world? No, they’re not! Actually, your grand- grand-grandparents might not know what these were back in the day!

Believe it or not, t-shirts are quite “young” when compared to other types of clothing as they weren’t seen before the 19th century.

Your first t-shirts were nothing more than the top part of the one-piece “union suits” that were cut into two distinct garments – basically giving you your basic underpants and long sleeved t-shirt. This happened because the miners and stevedores– who used union suits- had a hard time using full union suits in hot environments.  Come to think of it, shirts were not an option for those men back then, because shirts weren’t that cheap and they were usually saved for special occasions like going to church, a carnival or a date.

However, it wasn’t until the Navy issued t-shirts as a slip-on garment with no buttons for the Spanish American War that these pieces of clothing became quite popular in the United States.  Then again, the new and “revolutionary” model had a crew neck and short sleeves, making it perfect to be worn under the uniform, and perfect to be soiled when hard work was needed – the uniform of a soldier (especially the jacket/shirt) is a lot harder to clean than a simple white t-shirt which made T-shirts the perfect workhorse.  

The t-shirts became quite popular after the war, and most workers started to prefer using them as they were easy to put on, easy to clean, and very cheap!

However, it wasn’t until after WWII when the men returned home, that t-shirts began gaining more and more popularity, as war veterans started wearing their uniform trousers with their t-shirts, making these garments a piece of casual clothing. 

But, the T-shirts really became a fashion statement and something socially accepted by everybody after one particular actor in one particular movie made them notorious.  If you’re thinking Marlon Brando in the movie “A Streetcar Named Desire” then you’re spot on!

Now, after that movie, t-shirts became popular stand-alone pieces of clothing, and especially high school students started wearing them with pride (remember Grease?)

However, t-shirts were popular with jeans until Don Johnson made them look good with anything in the TV series Miami Vice from the 80s, where he was usually seen wearing a t-shirt with an Armani suit.

But, t-shirts were more than garments, as they were casually used to carry souvenir messages, commercial advertising and even protest messages!

This Shirt says it all!

The 50s were the igniter of wearable art using t-shirts, as Tropix Togs a company founded by Sam Kantor got licensed to print original Walt Disney characters on their shirts.  This started a whole trend when it came to t-shirts, and a major change happened in ’59 when plastisol was invented. Why this? Simply because plastisol was a very durable and stretchable ink that allowed more complex t-shirt designs.

As you can guess, the 60s were a time of innovation, so once the “hippie” age arrived t-shirts became mediums for wearable art. The man who’s responsible for this is believed to be Warren Dayton, who used t-shirts as a medium to imprint political, pop culture and cartoons.

The t-shirts created in the late 60s and 70s are even today something that everybody knows. Think of the Rolling Stones tongue and lips shirts, the yellow happy face tees and who can forget the "I ♥ N Y” design?  And, in the 60s, the T-shirts bearing the face of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara were first imprinted – and these are popular even today as you all know!

However, what’s interesting is that with almost all variations of the t-shirt, tank tops, crew neck, v neck, a shirt, muscle shirt and scoop neck, the t-shirt model that’s usually used for advertising is the crew neck. Naturally, there are plenty of models to choose from and variations that also help one express himself, but for political or advertisement, nothing beats the crew neck t-shirts!

All of today’s t-shirts, no matter what message they have on them, exist due to plastisol and the screen printing technique that allows an infinite number of things to be printed on t-shirts!

Of course, there are other methods that can be used like appliqué, embossing, airbrush or dye-sublimation transfers and even laser printing,  but most companies use plastisol for their t-shirt printing.

The t-shirt today

Since the 70s t-shirts have been used for marketing products, including Mickey Mouse, Coca Cola and others. However, the 90s made all companies use their logos or messages on t-shirts.

However, today it’s a standard to see t-shirts with the designer’s logos on them, especially because these are great ways for the wearers to show their appreciation for a particular brand.

What’s for sure is the fact that t-shirts are here and they’re here to stay -not only as garments that provide us with comfort and garments that make a statement and express our personality and preferences. 



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