What Time Does The Army-Navy Football Game Start The Definitive History of the T-Shirt

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The Definitive History of the T-Shirt

Today, the trendy t-shirt has spawned a huge textile and fashion industry, worth over two billion dollars in global retail trade. The unlikely birth of the t-shirt was a fairly unspectacular event, however this humble piece of clothing was set to change the styles and fashions of cultures for generations to come. Ultimately, the t-shirt would be used as a political tool for protest and at certain times and places in history, a symbol of revolution and change.

At the very beginning, the T-shirt was little more than underwear, and extremely utilitarian at that. In the late 19th century, the union suit, (colloquially known as long breeches), was at its peak, worn throughout America and northern parts of Europe. Popular across class and generation, this modest knit one-piece covered the entire body, from the neck to the wrists and ankles. The design piece de resistance featured a flap at the back for easier use in the old outhouse. As cotton became more widely available, underwear manufacturers seized the moment to create an alternative to this staple and rather bulky design. Knitted material is difficult to cut and sew seams, so a radical shift towards mass fashion could begin with cotton.

Times in Europe were changing, while Americans continued to sweat and itch, a simple T-shaped template was cut twice from a piece of cotton fabric and the two pieces were fitted and stitched together in a humble European workshop. It was half a pair of long panties, but it soon took on a life of its own. As the Industrial Revolution reached its inevitable conclusion, Henry T. Ford created the first production line in the world, the ideas of functionalism, efficiency and utilitarian style entered the mainstream of consciousness of societies around the world, especially in Europe. Many began to question the puritanism of the past, Victorian buttoned-up ideas of modesty began to give way to increasingly skimpy bathing suits, ankle-length skirts, and short-sleeved shirts. As World War I loomed on the horizon, the shirt was to be drafted into the army.

Historical researchers define that the first recorded incident of the introduction of the shirt to the United States occurred during World War I when American soldiers noticed the light cotton undershirts that European soldiers were issuing as standard uniform. American soldiers were furious, their government was still issuing woolen uniforms, it wasn’t fashion, it was practically a tactical military defect. How could a sniper keep calm and aim his rifle with beads of sweat pouring out of his eyes and an itch that just wouldn’t go away? The US military may not have reacted as quickly as their troops would have liked, but the highly practical and lightweight t-shirt would soon make its way back to the mainstream American consumer.

Due to their highly recognizable shape and the desire for a better name, the word “t-shirt” was born, and as the word found its place in the cultural lexicon, people around the world began to adopt a new and more comfortable alternative to the union shirt. Several American experts claim that the name was coined in 1932 when Howard Jones commissioned “Jockey” to design a new sweat-wicking shirt for the USC Trojans football team. However, the US military disputes that the origin of the word comes from military training shirts, since it was an army, it wasn’t long before practicality provided the abbreviation. There is an alternative theory, little known and quite graphic in its interpretation. Essentially, the idea that the arms are shortened in length is described as akin to the form of a torso with amputated knees, a common sight in the bloody battles of the past, although this speculation cannot be verified, the idea has a bloody ring of truth about it. During World War II, the shirt was finally issued as standard underwear for all ranks in the US Army and Navy. Although the t-shirt was intended as an undergarment, soldiers performing heavy combat games or construction work, especially those living in warmer regions, would often wear the t-shirt uncovered. On July 13, 1942, the cover story of Life magazine featured a photo of a soldier wearing a T-shirt that read “Air Corps Gunnery School.”

In the first few years after World War II, the European fashion for wearing T-shirts as outerwear, inspired mainly by the new uniforms of the US Army, spread to the civilian population of America. In 1948, the New York Times reported on a new and unique marketing tool for that year’s campaign for New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. It was the first recorded “slogan T-shirt”, the message was “Dev It for Devey”, closely repeated in the more famous “I Like Ike” T-shirts in the presidential campaign of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In the early 1950s, entrepreneurial companies based in Miami, Florida began emblazoning T-shirts with the names of Florida resorts and even cartoon characters. The first recorded graphic t-shirt catalog was created by Tropic Togs, its creator and founder, Miami entrepreneur Sam Kantor. They were the original licensee of Walt Disney characters which included Mickey Mouse and Davy Crockett. Later, other companies expanded into the T-shirt printing business, including the Sherri Manufacturing Company, also based in Miami.

Sherry began business in 1948 and owner and founder, Quinton Sandler, quickly caught on to the new t-shirt trend and quickly grew the screen print scarf company into the largest licensed screen print apparel manufacturer in the United States. Soon, more and more celebrities were seen on national television in this new risque outfit, including John Wayne and Marlon Brando. In 1955, James Dean gave the T-Shirt street cred in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause. The shirt quickly evolved into a modern symbol of rebellious youth. The initial outrage and public outcry soon subsided and eventually even America’s Bible Belt could see the practicality of its design.

In the 60s, people began to tie dye and screen print the basic cotton t-shirt, making it an even bigger commercial success. Advances in printing and dying allowed for more variety and tank tops, muscle shirts, scoop necks, v-necks and many other variations of the shirt came into vogue. During this period of cultural experimentation and upheaval, many independent t-shirt printers produced copies of the “Guerrillero Heroico, or Heroic Guerilla,” Alberto “Corda” Diaz’s famous portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Said to be the most reproduced image in the history of photography, largely thanks to the rise of the t-shirt.

In the sixties of the last century, the “Ringer T-shirt” was created, which became the basic fashion for young people and rock and rollers. The decade also saw the emergence of tie dyeing and screen printing on the basic shirt. In 1959, “Plastisol”, a more durable and stretchable ink, was invented, which allowed for much more variety in T-shirt designs. As textile technologies improved, new t-shirt styles were soon introduced, including the tank top, the A-shirt (notoriously known as the “ladies’ shirt”), the muscle shirt, the scoop neck, and of course the V-neck.

More and more iconic t-shirts were designed and created during the Psychedelic era, including more and more homemade experiments. A wave of crop tops began to appear on the burgeoning music festival scenes in Western Europe and America. By the late 60s it was practically the mandatory dress code in West Coast hippie culture. Band t-shirts became another extremely popular form of t-shirt, cheaply printed and sold at live gigs and concerts of the day, the tradition continues to this day, band t-shirts are as popular as ever, however their prices have risen drastically.

In 1975, Vivienne Westwood made her mark at 430 King’s Road in London at the Sex boutique with her new punk t-shirts, including her infamous “God Save the Queen” design. Punk ushered in an explosion of independent fashion designers, especially t-shirt designers. To this day, many modern designs pay homage to the “grunge look” of this rebellious and anarchic period of Western culture.

The influx of corporate funding in the 1980s changed the entire face of the T-shirt market. Slogan T-shirts became popular again, “Choose Life” was produced to promote George Michael’s debut album Wham, while “Frankie Saiss” helped push a string of highly controversial singles to the top of the UK charts for Liverpool. formed the band “Frankie Goes to Hollywood”. Bands, football teams, political parties, advertising agencies, business convention organizers, in fact, everyone after a cheap promotion started ordering and selling huge numbers of t-shirts. One noble exception at the time was the now iconic ‘Feed the World’ t-shirt, created to raise funds and awareness for the original and ground-breaking charity Band Aid.

During the 80s and 90s T-shirt production and printing technology improved greatly, including early forms of DTG (Direct Garment Transfer), which increased volume and availability. While in financial circles, the world’s stock markets have noticed that the American T-shirt is classified as a commodity in the apparel industry.

Branded corporate labels soon made a big mark in the industry. A whole new generation of T-shirt designs have flooded the market, promoting conformity and brand loyalty, such as Nike, rather than an expression of individuality. This rather uninspired tradition continues to this day, with the now-iconic “Vintage 82” t-shirt from Nekt, for example. Within a few years of its first printing, this design was allowed to flood the market, until cheap copies and black markets saturated the world. There are many similar designs that have a similarly limited cultural lifespan.

More recently, an inspiring movement to repoliticize the T-shirt has allowed pressure groups and charities to get their message across to a wider audience. Over a million people marched in London wearing a wide array of anti-war, anti-Bush and anti-Blair t-shirts in an anti-Iraq rally. Another example, reminiscent of an earlier Band Aid event, saw the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign covered by the global media. Shortly after Vivienne Westwood re-emerges in the t-shirt world with her new slogan “I’m not a terrorist, please don’t arrest me” t-shirt. Catherine Hamnett, another well-known British fashion designer, is well known for her protest t-shirts, including her work to highlight Third World debt and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. On the other hand, Catherine was recently quoted as saying that shirts with political slogans allow the consumer to “feel like they’ve taken part in democratic action,” when in fact all they’ve done is buy a little clothing. This may be true, but they still attract enormous media attention to any righteous cause.

Over the years, the styles, images and contribution to the free society that t-shirts have made have come to be taken for granted, the t-shirt is now an essential part of every modern wardrobe, no matter where in the world. Even more technical advances in the industry have allowed for more choices in style and fit. Oversized knee-length t-shirts are popular with hip hop and skater fashion. Seasons change, however from time to time the women’s market embraces more fitted styles of “cropped” tops, short enough to reveal the bottom. The rise of the “long sleeve” or long sleeve hoodie can’t be ignored, it’s also fast becoming a must-have addition to any fashionista’s collection.

Recently, there has been a huge consumer backlash against brand alignment in the corporate and licensed t-shirt market. The sense of individuality is finally returning to the consumer, people today are not satisfied with the concept of “brand loyalty”. People want to reflect their own personality, political beliefs, sense of style or humor. Some design theirs with a wide selection of online DIY t-shirt printing services, including Cafe Press and Threadless to name just two. But many people have neither the time nor the inclination to design their own artwork, thus marking the rise of the independent t-shirt designer. Reminiscent of the 1960s, but with a global appeal, artists, graphic designers, outlaws from the fashion world are starting to get noticed. The biggest advantage a modern T-shirt can have is its originality, a quality that will always be in demand, both now and hopefully far into the future.

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