4 Things You Never Knew About the T Shirt: The Sexiest Ex-Underwear in Modern History
Have you ever had that nightmare where you find yourself in a public place clad only in your underwear? Well, according to the Victorians, you’ve probably done that in real life.
T-Shirt Trivia #1: Yes. T-shirts started their existence as underwear.
Mind you, this fashion development emerged in the late 19th century (the same era in which the Rational Dress activists warned women that it was “unhealthful” to wear more than seven pounds of undergarments at a time), so the standing definition of “underwear” implied a lot more fabric than modern-era briefs and boxers.
For fashionable men at the turn of the twentieth century, the undergarment of choice was “union” underwear, which were skin-tight, one-piece, all-purpose undergarments. (Later modified with a strategic button flap, because…when you gotta go, you don’t want to spend twenty minutes undressing.)
The shorter-leg and arm look was a summer modification of the union garment, for those shameless guys who didn’t want to die of heat stroke, but the union garment was still basically a body suit. (Not unlike the 1890s bathing costume, minus the jaunty horizontal stripes and belts.)
The union undergarment was popular because it was held up by your shoulders, so there wasn’t any awkward bunching around the waist, where multiple garments would overlap, and you didn’t need a bulky drawstring to keep your underpants from sliding down to your knees over the course of the day. (Remember that elastic wouldn’t be a thing until the late 1950s.)
The split undergarment (with separated tops and bottoms) was basically an innovation made possible by (you guessed it), superior milling practices that made cottons lighter, finer, and stretchier.
And the jump to the more modern t-shirt was made, like most innovations in 20th century men’s garments, largely by the military. Between 1898 and 1913, the U.S. Navy began issuing a T-shirt as an undergarment to be worn under the uniform.
At the time, it made a lot of sense, because the T-shirt was designed to serve two main functions: to add a sweat-absorbent layer or fabric to your wardrobe (remember that commercial deodorants weren’t a thing until the 1940s) and to minimize wear and tear on your more expensive button-up shirts and jackets. As a bonus, it would keep you extra-warm in the winter, and you could strip down to your T-shirt in tropical summer weather.
And, of course, when all those military guys went home, they took their T-shirts with them, and soon the T-shirt became a popular undergarment for men in a lot of industries. Over time, T-shirts were also increasingly worn alone by men performing farm or ranch chores in the summer (modest, yet lightweight!), and the t-shirt was also adapted for boys, who have always been hard on their play clothes. But, for the most part, adult men still generally wore long-sleeved button-up shirts in public.
T-Shirt Trivia #2: So How Did T-Shirts Become Accepted as Shirts?
Two words: Marlon Brando.
In the film production of Tennessee William’s Pulitzer-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Brando played the role of Stanley Kowalski, a working-class guy from New Orleans. Stanley is rude, crass, and incredibly sexual…so, naturally, he’s the kind of guy who would wear a T-shirt in the presence of women. (Gasp!)
And even though Stanley is not a role model for the ages, Brando made the T-shirt look so good that everyone wanted to look just like him. Almost overnight, the T-shirt became an iconic look, cemented into public awesomeness by an increasing number of young, sexy Hollywood bad boys.
But the reason that they’re all wearing skin-tight white or neutral T-shirts is that T-shirts were still largely worn as undergarments. It took the better part of another decade for manufacturers to branch out into colored and patterned t-shirts for men.
But, in a sad twist for men’s fashion, the popularization of the T-shirt almost ruined it, because although T-shirts debuted as the sexiest male garment in town, the mass-manufacture of the T-shirt as outerwear also led to the manufacture of t-shirts using heavier cotton fabrics and less precise design. So most modern T-shirts are baggier, less precisely cut, and far less flattering than their 1950s counterparts.
T-Shirt Trivia #3: But where did print T-shirts come from?
Oddly, the printed T-shirt predates the use of T-shirts as a standard wear-alone garment. The very first printed T-shirt was produced in 1933 as a promotional product for the blockbuster film The Wizard of Oz. In retrospect, it was a strange marketing decision, because none of the characters in the film wore a T-shirt (at least, not visibly), and even the most ardent fan wouldn’t have worn the T-shirt in public, so it would have been worn more like a secret tattoo—under your regular clothes.
It was actually the military who started mass-manufacturing printed T-shirts to identify men from specific specialist training programs, and these shirts famously made the cover of LIFE Magazine in 1942, at the height of World War 2. However, the understanding was that these were specialized military garments, worn (like special forces tattoos) under the official uniform, and only by specialist military personnel.
Ironically, it was the peace-loving hippies and social rights activists that made slogan T-shirts popular outerwear in the 1960s, when they took advantage of new screen-printing technology to turn themselves into living billboards.
And between those three innovations—the commercial slogan, the organizational affiliation, and the snarky social protest—you have the basis of the modern printed T-shirt.
T-Shirt Trivia #4: Do T-shirts look good on short men?
Surprisingly, the guys that made the t-shirt famous were mostly on the shorter end of the spectrum. Marlon Brando clocked in at 5’9” and James Dean at 5’8.” But the reason that they made the T-shirt look so good is that they were wearing T-shirts tailored to fit their bodies. No baggy material that might distract from the line of the body. Hemline cut to the waist to maximize leg length. Sleeves cut high to accentuate muscle and make the arm look longer.
T-shirts started looking silly on shorter guys when standardized manufacturing led to the production of t-shirts in heavier, thicker cottons and in “average” sizes. Since the “average” garment is based on a guy who’s 5’10, the scaled down version of the proportions tend to look awful—sleeves cut down to the elbow, extra sag in the waist, and a hemline that comes halfway down the thigh. Even guys with great builds look dumb wearing the wrong cut.
Do you see how the shoulder seam falls down the arm? A perfectly fitted T-shirt can make a Hollywood icon, but a badly fitted T-shirt will make a gorgeous guy look like he’s playing dress-up with his dad’s clothes.
So, if you want to rock the T-shirt like Marlon Brando, you need to find a shirt that fits your body at the chest, along the torso, at the hem, and at the sleeve. And to accomplish that, you either need to learn how to sew, or you need to find the kind of menswear that understands how men are built.
Fortunately, we’ve got your back. (And your front. And your hems.)
Because there’s no reason not to look your best.