The Origin of the Not-So-Humble T-Shirt

T-shirts are arguably one of the most popular pieces of apparel in present-day fashion culture. They are so ubiquitous that you are almost guaranteed to find this iconic piece of fashion accessory in every home.

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the T-shirt rapidly grew from being just a basic undergarment to “a must-have” apparel, via the massive influence of the US Navy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the University of California.

How did the T-shirt become so popular and where did the T-shirt originate from?

No one knows for sure who first came up with the T-shirt idea, but we do know when the design first materialized into tangible evidence: the Union Suit. Its failures and constricting features were the catalysts for the design and production of the T-shirt.

Below we detail the steps in the evolution of the t-shirt as the top half of a rather yuck undergarment into the fashion essential of today.


The Union Suit

The Union suit was originally invented for women as a less constricting form of undergarments from the corsets that were prevalent before then. Soon enough, it became open to both genders: men and women wore the same version.

The design of the union suit was such that it was a jumpsuit made of flannel. Union suits had a single row of buttons that began from the neck and ended in the groin area. For the most part, they looked like they were wearing onesies to protect themselves from the cold.

With time, the idea of the union suits became so famous for their pragmatic approach to warding off cold. But the union suit had its shortcomings, and the first of them was its buttons. Yes, it’s annoying when your button come loose. But it’s even more problematic for the people because loose buttons mean that they were at the risk of exposing their chests.

This, and the less than efficient flap on the butt of the union suit designed for going to the toilet made the suit redundant. That wasn’t all! While it kept men warm in the cold; it was useless at keeping them cool in the heat of the day.

Designers all over tried to find a way to improve on this underwear by retaining its warming ability.

At the end of the day, the resultant effect was a T-shirt and long Johns.

 The T-shirt was first introduced in the eighteenth century after the break of the union suit, but it got its name a couple of years later.

At this time, the first form of T-shirt looked like an undershirt made from wool and pieces of cotton, but without buttons. The first T-shirt was strictly worn as an undergarment. It was viewed indecent if worn without another shirt on top. In some places like Havana, there were laws enacted to prevent the public wearing of these undergarments.


The Bachelor's Undershirt by Cooper

The evolution of the T-shirt hit a significant tipping point in 1904 when the Cooper Underwear Company launched its marketing campaign to unmarried men.

Seeing this as a means of getting profit from this wool and cotton underwear, the Cooper Underwear Company began to market these T-shirts to bachelors. They termed it the bachelor undershirts.

Their publicity slogans highlighted the advantages of the woolly undershirts over the uncomfortable union suits. The tagline read “no safety pins, no buttons, no needle, no thread.”

This slogan patronized the typical bachelor’s lack of skill with a needle and thread, thereby making the T-shirt an easy sell to them.

The marketing campaign of the T-shirts by the Cooper Underwear Company made considerable strides in making the T-shirt popular. Their adverts showed a direct comparison of the union suits with the new undershirts. The magnified the fact that these T-shirts were easier to manage. Plus the T-shirts didn’t have as many complications with buttons as the union suit.

The advert showed two men; one of them wore a damaged union suit, while the other wore an undershirt. The man in the union suit looked embarrassed as he looked away from the cameras because his buttons were undone. On the other hand, the man in the undershirt looked confident and manly, as he proudly faced the cameras without fear or concern.

Although it seemed trivial at the time, the Cooper Underwear Company set the stage for the growth of the new fashion piece. Their innovative advert would influence one of the most powerful institutions of the day - the United States Navy.


The US Navy Standard Issue T-Shirt

Not long after the Cooper Underwear Company made waves with its adverts of the T-shirt, the United States Navy endorsed it.

Barely a year after the adverts that made the T-shirt popular, in 1905, the United States Navy included the undershirt in their dressing. The decision of the navy to include the button-less shirts came as a result of the fact that more than half of the recruits were young bachelor’s who weren’t skilled with the needle and thread.

To avoid hashing poorly dressed soldiers, they included the T-shirt as one of the standard undershirts for its officers.

The uniform regulations of the United States Navy put specific stipulations on the wearing of the T-shirt. The most important requirement was that the T-shirt was still and only to be worn as an undershirt, except in certain situations.

Exceptions to this standard rule were made for sailors who worked in the engine room, and were mostly in a hot environment all day long. All navy sailors were allowed to put on T-shirt-like clothes during scorching weather, but only under their commander’s discretion.

Although the navy endorsed this earlier on, the US army came on board a couple of years later during the WWI. The undershirts were worn by the thousands of soldiers who were active in combat.

After the WWI ended in 1920, the widespread acceptance of the T-shirt took a whole new level. These soldiers went back home with the tradition of wearing T-shirts. From there, the idea of wearing T-shirts spread to several parts of the country and the world.


The 1920’s, Fitzgerald and How T-shirts Got Their Name

The Roaring 20s was another pivotal decade for T-shirts. The growth of T-shirts hit two significant milestones. The First World War ended in 1918, and the soldiers, already used to wearing these T-shirts, took the culture home. Veterans took to wearing their uniform trousers with the undershirts as a way to recycle what little choice they had in their wardrobes.

Then the T-shirt got its name and its inclusion into permanent popular culture thanks to one of the US's greatest authors. After the war, author F Scott Fitzgerald wrote a novel titled, “This Side of Paradise”, where he referred to these previously called cotton undershirts as T-shirts. In his book, the main character packed “T-shirts” as part of the garment he took to the University.

In 1932, Jockey International Incorporation made lightweight, absorbent T-shirts for the football players of the University of California. The new style of T-shirt soon became so popular among football players and other university students. By the mid-1930s, the T-shirts became popular amongst University students even as an outer garment.


The Acceptance of T-shirts as an Outer Garment

Tees were already accepted by most people in the US as something for the more casual members of society. University students especially promoted their growth using them to demonstrate their sporting loyalties in mimicry of their college teams. Many students began to wear them as outer garments, and soon after, they were a default, if very informal, fashion item.

Long accepted as a clothing item only for students or manual laborers, during the second world war, soldiers were encouraged to wear these T-shirts as undergarments. And when the war ended, just like after WWI, they carried on with the T-shirts as their preferred outerwear and took the tradition home.


Related Article: History of T-shirts (shapes, fashion, and fit) for the past 100 years