To study the history of the humble t-shirt is like trying to answer the age-old question "What came first, the chicken or the egg".
In researching the topic, I found that there are many differing opinions.
One is that since the undershirt is the birthplace of the T-shirt, one must ask where the undershirt was first invented. The quick answer is that its always been around.
Now, I don't know if there has been cave art with tunics, but the Ancient Egyptian art shows women wearing tunics to keep warm. It's interesting to note that since woman stayed indoors more, they were the ones who required the tunic. While the men had many styles of clothing, they didn't wear an undershirt. The Ancient Egyptian tunics were made of linen. (For more information on Ancient Egyptian dress, visit this page of touregypt.net. They have fascinating information like: men are painted with darker skin tones in Ancient Egyptian art because they spent more time outdoors in the sunshine.)
Interestingly, for the Ancient Roman it was only the man who wore the tunic. The lower class working man would wear only a tunic made of wool, belted at the waist with the material hitched up to show the knees. In fact, the lower the class, the harder the work, and the higher the tunic would be hitched up to make work easier. Only the two upper classes wore togas overtop of their tunics, with the shoulder of their tunics seen. Their tunics would have a purple stripe, a thin one for the Equestrian (a wealthy businessman who is a Plebian; that is someone who is not an ancestor of the first 100 Patriarchs that founded Rome) & a thick one for the senator (someone who is a Patrician - you guessed it - a person who can trace their lineage back to one of the 100 Patriarchs.) So for the Ancient Roman the undershirt, as with almost everything in their society, was used to denote status and class. (For more detailed information on their dress, visit this page of vroma.org.)
In Medieval Times they adopted the Roman tunic, but both genders wore it. They both wore a long tunic as an undergarment, then the men wore another tunic with a border overtop. The women wore a 'super tunic' bordered at the neck, sleeves & hem, and pulled up just enough to see the bottom of the under tunic. If you were higher class, you would add a cloak. The men added knee-length breeches, while the women added a cloth to hid their hair. Aren't you glad for your favorite old t-shirt & that's it! For more information on Medieval garb, visit Medieval Clothing.com
Now that we've waded through the history of the tunic, we come to the more colorful history of the undershirt, which is where most histories begin to trace the t-shirt.
There's a wonderful story told about the history of the undershirt in Britain. The first undershirts were sleeveless & made of wool. There is a story that during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1800's a member of the royal family, perhaps even the queen herself, was to inspect the fleet. It was decided that it wasn't decent for the men's underarms to be seen while they working, so they were ordered to sew sleeves on, thus creating the famous "T" shape! (Information from Mark E Dixon website, quoting Harold Lipson, retired vice president of Champion Products.)
Most 'T-shirt Historians' claim that the t-shirt was first introduced in America by soldiers of The American Expeditionary Force who were sent to France in 1917, during the first World War. These "Doughboys", as they were called, were sent overseas with woolen underwear under a woolen uniform - and were very hot! They noticed that the French soldiers wore light knit-cotton undershirts, and soon traded items for it, only to return home with these new undershirts. But according to Ingrid Mendelsohn, a researcher with the Smithsonian Institution, these shirts were sleeveless, not tee shaped, and some were even silk. She believes that this was the introduction of a lighter weight cloth, but not necessarily the tee shape.(See the Mark E Dixon website.)
According to the BCpromos site, the US Navy issued a crew-neck short sleeved white cotton undershirt for their men to wear under their jumpers to "cover their chest hair". That would pre-date the Doughboys' t-shirt adventure.
Either way, by the 1920's 'T-shirt' was listed as an official word in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, but it was still considered an undergarment.
In the 1930s companies such as Hanes & Sears Roebuck began to offer t-shirts to the general public.
In 1933 Champion Products sold their first printed t-shirt to a sport shop in Ann Arbor, with the University of Michigan logo on it. It was flock printed, just like their sweaters.
In 1934 men sought freedom from their undershirts after Clark Gable removed his dress shirt to reveal a bare chest (!) in the movie 'It Happened One Night'. Women swooned, and men removed their undershirts, too.
In 1939 the first promotional t-shirt was printed for the movie "The Wizard of Oz".
In 1942 the Navy issued white t-shirts to all of their servicemen aboard ships. The marines were given the same white tees, but they soon discovered it made them targets so they dyed them with coffee grounds! Later they were issued sage green t-shirts. In 1944 the army was offering them to some soldiers for 'field testing'. They found them to protect better from sunburn. (See BCpromo site.)
However, the 40s still regarded the t-shirt as an undershirt. The only people having fun with printed tees were the kids who were wearing Davy Crockett, Roy Rogers & Joe Dimaggio t-shirts. The Smithsonian has a political message printed on a t-shirt - Dew it with Dewey - for Truman-Dewey in 1948, but it is still a kid's shirt!
In 1951 Marlon Brando wore a fitted t-shirt and overnight the undershirt became an outer shirt for all the young 'hipsters'. He wore his t-shirt again 1954 in The Wild One, and with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 & Elvis showing how good it looked under a leather jacket, the t-shirt was now out to stay.
In the mid 50s the racing culture began putting the same flames and pinstriping from their cars onto their shirts for the 'cool' crowd. From there they began drawing their cars, and then other characters. They moved from the oil paints they used on cars that cracked to airbrushing.
Then, in 1959 Plastisol ink was invented, forever changing the face of t-shirts. There were no dangerous fumes, it was easier to use and so mistake proof.
In 1959 a woman wore a t-shirt in a movie & brought the t-shirt out for everyone. Jean Seberg wore a t-shirt in the movie 'Breathless' - but not just a white t-shirt. It was the first printed t-shirt, advertising an English newspaper in France. Now the t-shirt was sought by more than young rebels & hipsters - the elite were trying to get their hands on them, too. (Info from Going Postal.)
The 1960s t-shirts were tie-dyed at home, and a whole generation turned to their wardrobe to exercise their freedom of expression.
In 1969 Don Boelter Lithography of Hollywood discovered a way to put a photograph on a t-shirt, which brought the product up a few notches.
In the early 70s the iron on transfer was invented, and t-shirt shops sprang up at the local mall ready to make the t-shirt you chose from a collection.
The late 70's experienced a 'T-shirt Boom' with over 200,000 t-shirts were printed to promote the movie Jaws, and millions more were printed with a photo of Farrah Fawcett from the Charlie's Angels TV show.
In 1975 they added titanium oxide to the paint so it could be used on color t-shirts, and for awhile there was hardly a white t-shirt in sight!
In the 80's people were crazy for t-shirts. Artists joined the fun, and soon there were $2,000 tees!
Today you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't own a t-shirt of some kind, and most people own several t-shirts, including one they claim to be a favorite.About the Author
Teresa McEachern has founded two e-commerce sites: Photography Gift Shop with professional photos of travel sights & wildlife on t-shirts & gifts, as well as Lingo T-shirts which features t-shirts that talk for you about your passion for sports, hobbies, babies & family, holidays or wildlife.