The history of the T-shirt

You can't have missed it: the iconic T-shirt – we mean the square archetype with a high round neck – is back in fashion! No, it's not flattering in shape and yes, that's why it's über-cool. Because no-nonsense fashion is really in right now. The more normal the better. Could it be because of the abnormal time we live in? Or is it an answer to the anti-fast fashion movement. Anyway, time for a dive into the wonderful world of the T-shirt.


A 'T'-shirt?

First of all, the name. T-shirt. And not a t-shirt. That capital T is not a coincidence: it refers to the shape of the garment. The sleeves are almost at right angles to the body, at least: that's what the original version looked like. Later it was discovered that it is better to make the angle slightly more oblique, because who goes through life with arms wide open? Wisdom comes with age. At least that's what we heard :-).




The first T-shirt was a DIY case. Until the end of the 19th century, men's underwear was in the form of a onesie. A romper. Agossie… can you imagine? Google taught us that men cut their bottom jumpsuit in half to better tuck the top into the pants to protect against the cold. However, we don't see the logic in that. If you cut a 1-piece undersuit in half, the top part will tuck out of your pants faster, right? So Google: we beg to differ. We have our own theory. Men just didn't feel like washing the whole thing after a hard day's work. So hop in the scissors, underpants with brake marks and other marks in soapy water, the top will last a few days. Depending on the profession and the hygiene awareness of the man in question, this theory may have been applied the other way around. Sounds accurate, right?



As with all working class hero garments – we mention the jeans, the lumberjack shirt, the cargo pants – at some point commerce will adopt the style. With the Americans at the forefront (surprise, surprise). The Cooper Underwear Company was the first, they called their new item "bachelor undershirt" (hey, our theory could be retroactive). The US Navy was next in line, but that doesn't really fall under the heading of commerce. On the other hand, it does fall under the heading of 'source of inspiration for men's fashion' and with that the T-shirt was promoted from underwear to outerwear for good.

Just a little sidetrack: the power of the T-shirt as a means of communicating a message was already discovered in the 1930s. So long before the T-shirt became a fashion phenomenon in the 1950s. Special right? Usually it works the other way around. Visitors to the musical The Wizard of Oz were able to purchase a T-shirt afterwards to show their enthusiasm for the show. So the Tin Man is actually the T-man.

In 1948, US presidential candidate Dewey promoted himself by printing the slogan "Dew it with Dewy" on white T-shirts. He lost the race, but won the poodle prize for innovative campaigning.

In 1950, the popularity went through the roof and the white T-shirt gained serious sex appeal. All this thanks to Marlon Brando, who, in the cult film 'A streetcar named desire', with his muscular torso pressed into a slim-fit shirt, made many women's hearts go wild. Meanwhile sultry looking at the camera and sensually sweating. It almost makes you forgive him for wearing that link bracelet, or is that also back in fashion? (this last one is coming back into fashion, but more about that in another blog)

James Dean did this again in 1955 in the classic 'Rebel without a cause'.



Looking for pictures of female old-school celebs in T-shirts, we didn't come across much: the ladies are late adaptors, the primal T-shirt was more of a man's thing for a long time. We did find a rare snapshot of Brigitte Bardot with a classic Tee and mom (excuse me, sex bomb) jeans. And we don't want to miss this one from Julia Roberts, shot by celebrity photographer Herb Ritz. With a big nod to the men's underwear that refers to the origin of the T-shirt. On her 53rd (!!!) birthday in 2020 she is using the trick again under her own direction by calling on her fellow Americans to vote. She shared the photo on social media, accompanied by a twist on the famous quote from the movie Notting Hill: "I'm just a girl standing in front of a boy, asking him to vote." Sharp, Jules.


Which brings us back smoothly to the role of the T-shirt as a carrier of a message. These don't always have to be pompous messages: the fact that you've been somewhere is sometimes enough to print on a T-shirt. The most famous, most iconic example of this can be seen below, an initiative by graphic designer Milton Glaser in 1977, intended to improve New York's bad image. In addition, you can see what happens when the tourist industry gets its hands on a trend. "Been there. Done that. Bought the T-shirt'



The eighTies

In the eighties, the T-shirt was used as a mood maker and medium to create awareness. Katherine Hamnett, a fashion designer who created a furore in the 1980s with the slogan Tee, pulled a punch when she shook hands with Margaret Thatcher at the opening of London Fashion Week in 1984. She wore a T-shirt with the text '58% don't want Pershing' – the result of a poll about the deployment of US nuclear missiles in Europe that was printed without consulting voters. A mortal sin for democracy, exposed through the most democratic garment ever. Thatcher gave a scornful cackling-laughter, the cameras flashed, and Katherine Hamnett became the figurehead of fashion activism. George Michael's famous 'Choose Life' T-shirt is her work as well, it was a cry for attention to the English suicide and drug problem in the eighties.


More recent example: in 2017, Dior showed a white T-shirt with the print 'We should all be feminists' during Paris Fashion Week. Courtesy of the fashion house's first female creative director since 1947. It not only stirred up conversation, but also dusted off the image of feminism. Female empowerment was suddenly cool. Which it always was, but that aside. The end justifies the means!

If we want, we can go on for pages to feed examples to your undoubtedly eager eyes. The T-shirt can be found in so many different cultures! The tattered and safety pinned versions of the punk era, Don Johnson wearing a T-shirt under his (pastel, ew) Armani suit in the slick TV series Miami Vice, band T-shirts that identify music fans, sports shirts with the Your club's name on the chest and your favorite sky-high and overpaid Son of God on the back… We're just mentioning some of the outliers here.



Fast forward to the present. In many collections, the old school 'square' T-shirt is again fully present. Yes, also with us, see at the bottom of this blog.

But now you want to know how to style it. We'll tell you: what you feel most comfortable with. It can be that simple. Do you like a loose-fitting T-shirt with leggings or skinny? Do it. Throw in a cardigan? Do it. Prefer a little more shape in your silhouette? Wear the T-shirt tucked into your pants – these can of course be on-trend mom jeans, but also pleated pants (also in full swing).

Or combine it with a skirt, preferably an ultimate feminine togive that blazing contrast. Do you like accessories? A necklace that dangles coquettishly over the edge of your crew neck is back. Make it a name necklace and you'll score double style points. We will help you on your way…

And, do you dare? We were also in the getting used to phase for a long time, but have now fully gotten on board. Just look below. Pull those T-shirts out of the closet (or order them 😃) and then you can 'play with the contents of your wardrobe' and find that combinations are everywhere. Tried & tested. You can do it too



Nic & Ilse