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The History Of T-Shirts

T-shirts began life in the early 19th century as a form of underwear and were later worn as a ‘top covering’ garment by labourers working in hot environments; miners, farmers and dock workers for example.

A classic T-shirt is made of soft material, often cotton and features short sleeves, a round neck and has no collar or buttons. The name T-shirt came about later and was derived simply from the shape of the garment when laid out flat.

Although they were worn by servicemen during World War II, T-shirts only became a popular item of everyday wear after the release of the Marlon Brando film ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in 1951. Brando became an icon overnight and everybody wanted a T-shirt.

During the 1960s, the first patterned T-shirts were made, pioneered by the pop-art designer, Warren Dayton who described them as ‘wearable art’. This began a whole new trend in advertising and became part of the ‘human billboard’ culture.

Walt Disney World were one of the forerunners of mass produced cartoon T-shirts, one of the very first depicted their original character, Mickey Mouse. Today Walt Disney produces a huge range of character clothing which includes everything from underwear to disposable ponchos.

Some t-shirts have become particularly iconic, one of the best known was first produced in the 1970s as a tourist souvenir for New York City and stated: “I [heart] N.Y.”, today there are millions of versions of the original idea for many different places and themes.

Other well known 1970s symbols related to culture and music, recognised the world over, include: the bright yellow ‘smiley’, the marijuana leaf, the tongue and lips (Rolling Stones) and perhaps most memorable of all, the Playboy Bunny.

The first T-shirts designed as event souvenirs were mainly produced for outdoor concerts. In those days fast fabric dye and the printing process had not been perfected and the consequences of a rain shower were often a dye stained body and a lost logo – enter disposable ponchos!

The original disposable ponchos were little more than sacks with a head hole designed simply to provide protection from the rain for the wearer, as well as an excellent sales opportunity for the vendors. Today, disposable ponchos are on sale all over the world at outdoor venues like theme parks festivals and football matches. Often used for advertising, they are sometimes distributed free by brand promoters.

Modern T-shirts are incredibly diverse, as are the ways they are put to use.

Some change colour with a change of temperature, others have a built in scent but most are designed to give out a message of some sort which could be anything from advertorial, humorous, political or sometimes, deliberately rude enough to provoke a reaction.

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