The T-Shirt: A History

The T-shirt is a timeless staple. The silhouette is simplistic and practical. There’s no question that a T-shirt with a pair of Levi jeans is more of an American classic than Diet Coke, and yet it wasn’t until fairly recently that this most valuable player in our extensive arsenal came to be.


The origin of the T-shirt is far from its current status in western society. Originally, the T-shirt was only intended to be worn as an undershirt. Long-johns had previously been a popular choice, but the garment’s buttons were notorious for coming loose. Because of constricting gender norms, single men without the help of wives had trouble sewing buttons back on to their long-johns when they fell off. Instead, they’d use uncomfortable safety pins to fix the problem. In 1904, the T-shirt emerged; it was nicknamed “the bachelor shirt” by many. Seen as a more practical alternative, the T-shirt could be pulled over one’s head and tightened back upon the person’s body by the elasticity in the material. The first T-shirts had wider necks and shorter sleeves than the modern day version and were only ever worn as undergarments, but over time they became a favorite wardrobe piece for all genders.

Soon after its introduction, the US Navy caught onto the new design and ordered the garment for their troops to wear under their uniforms, increasing the popularity of the simple cotton item. It wasn’t until the publication of This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald that the T-shirt was given its current name based on its shape and structure.

The transition between the wearability of the T-shirt from an undergarment for men to a visible part of their wardrobe is quite blurry. But by the 1940s, T-shirts were everywhere. They had become common-place in high schools across the country. Teenagers had closets full of colorful favorites adorned with fringe and patches, while most adults still wore them as undershirts, preferring their buttoned frocks. “We have been slow to realize that the high school crowd needs to sit in with us, with all their jive talk, their ‘T’ shirts and ‘sloppy joes,’” Survey Graphic wrote in 1944, defining younger people by their fashion choices. In July 1942, LIFE Magazine debuted its first cover featuring a graphic tee, reading “Air Corps Gunnery School” with a winged rodent sitting on a cloud pictured in between the text and a man wearing a fishing hat and carrying a machine gun.

The entire country slowly drifted from suits and fedoras to the classic T-shirt and jeans—the US symbol of comfort that other cultures around the world soon also adopted. But this trend wasn’t just for men. As button-up shirts were slowly done away with, so were fancy blouses and dresses. TIME Magazine quoted from the San Francisco Call and Post that “once a woman has known the joys and comfort of unrestricted movement, she will be very loath to go back to trailing cumbersome skirts.” The T-shirt marked the start of androgynous fashion, overlapping into the 60s and 70s and continuing to influence the gender-nonconforming timeless staples that walk the streets and runway today.

Photo by: Sophie Peters-Wilson