The Whole Idea Behind Make-To-Stock Or Mass Production Was To The Definitive History of the T-Shirt

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The Definitive History of the T-Shirt

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

At the very beginning, the T-shirt was nothing more than underwear, and a very utilitarian one at that. In the late 19th century, the Union suit (also known as long breeches) was in its heyday, worn throughout America and northern 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 pièce de résistance featured a hinged flap at the back for ease of use in the old annex. As cotton became more and more affordable, underwear manufacturers seized the moment to create an alternative to this basic and rather bulky design. Knitted material is difficult to cut and sew, so cotton can start a radical shift towards mass fashion.

Times were changing in Europe, and Americans continued to sweat and itch, a simple “T” pattern was cut twice from a piece of cotton fabric, and the two pieces were butted and sewn together in a humble European workhouse. It was half a pair of long pants, but it soon took on a life of its own. As the Industrial Revolution reached its inevitable conclusion, Henry T. Ford created the world’s first production line, ideas of functionalism, efficiency and utilitarian style entered the mainstream of societies around the world, and in Europe in particular. Many began to question the puritanism of the past, Victorian ideas of button-down modesty were beginning to give way to increasingly skimpy bathing suits, ankle-length skirts, and short-sleeved shirts. When the First World War loomed on the horizon, T-shirt was about to be drafted into the army.

Historical researchers determine that the first recorded instance of the introduction of the T-shirt to the United States occurred during World War I, when American soldiers noticed the lightweight cotton underpants being issued as standard uniforms to European soldiers. American soldiers were freaking out, their government was still issuing woolen uniforms, it wasn’t fashion, it was practically a tactical military flaw. How could a sniper stay still and aim his rifle with beads of sweat in his eyes and an itch that just wouldn’t go away? The US Army may not have reacted as quickly as their soldiers would have liked, but the highly practical and lightweight t-shirt will soon be making its way back to the mainstream American consumer.

Because of their very recognizable shape and the desire for a better name, the word “t-shirt” was coined, and when the word found its place in the cultural lexicon, people all over the world began to adopt the new and more comfortable alternative, 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 Army disputes the origin of the word from army training shirts, so being in the military, it wasn’t long before practicality ensured the acronym. There is one alternative theory, little known and quite vivid in its interpretation. In fact, the idea that the shortened length of the arms was described as similar to the form of the torso with amputated limbs, a common occurrence in the bloody battles of the past, although this assumption cannot be verified, there is a bloody grain of truth to this idea. During World War II, the t-shirt was finally issued as the standard undergarment for all ranks in both the US Army and Navy. Although the t-shirt was intended as an undergarment, soldiers performing strenuous war games or construction work, and especially those in warm countries, often wore the t-shirt uncovered. On July 13, 1942, a photo of a soldier wearing a T-shirt with the words “Aviation Artillery School” appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

In the first few years after World War II, the European fashion for wearing T-shirts as outerwear, inspired mainly by the new uniform of the US Army, spread to the American civilian population. In 1948, the New York Times reported on a unique new marketing tool for New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s election campaign. It was the first recorded “slogan t-shirt,” the message being “Dew It for Dewey,” exactly echoed by the more famous “I Like Ike” t-shirts during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential campaign.

In the early 1950s, enterprising 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 Tropix Togs, its creator and founder, Miami entrepreneur Sam Kantor. They were the original licensees for Walt Disney characters, which included Mickey Mouse and Davy Crockett. Later, other companies began printing T-shirts, including the Sherry Manufacturing Company, also based in Miami.

Sherry started in 1948, 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 screen print apparel manufacturer in the US. Before long, more and more celebrities were appearing on national television in this new risque outfit, including John Wayne and Marlon Brando. In 1955, James Dean gave T-Shirt Street credibility in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause. The T-shirt quickly became a modern symbol of rebellious youth. The initial furore and public outcry soon subsided, and over time even the American Bible Belt was able to see the practicality of the design.

In the 60s, people began to tie dye and screen print basic cotton t-shirts, making them an even bigger commercial success. Advances in printing and dyeing have allowed for more variety, and T-shirts, shirts, crew necks, V-necks, and many other t-shirt variations have come into fashion. During this period of cultural experimentation and upheaval, many independent t-shirt printers made copies of the famous Guerrillero Heroico, or Heroic Guerrilla, portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara by Alberto “Corda” Diaz. It has since been said to be the most reproduced image in the history of photography, largely thanks to the introduction of the T-shirt.

The 1960s also saw the creation of the “Ringer” t-shirt, which became a hot trend for youth and rock ‘n’ rollers. The decade also saw tie dyeing and screen printing on the basic T-shirt. In 1959, the more durable and stretchy “Plastisol” ink was invented, allowing for much more variety in T-shirt designs. As textile technology improved, new t-shirt styles soon emerged, including the tank top, the A-shirt (infamously known as the “multiple wife”), the crew-neck shirt, and of course, the v-neck.

More and more iconic t-shirts were designed and created throughout the psychedelic era, including more and more homemade experiments. A tidal wave of T-shirts with ties began to appear on the stages of music festivals in Western Europe and America. By the end of the 60s, it was practically a mandatory dress code among West Coast hippie culture. Band t-shirts have become another extremely popular form of t-shirts that are cheaply printed and sold at live concerts and day gigs, the tradition continues to this day, band t-shirts are more popular than ever, but their prices have skyrocketed.

In 1975, Vivienne Westwood makes her mark at 430 Kings Road, London, at the Sex boutique with her new punk t-shirts, including the infamous “God Save the Queen” graphic. Punk led to an explosion of independent fashion designers and T-shirt designers in particular. 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 were gaining popularity again, ‘Choose Life’ was created to promote George Michael’s band’s debut album ‘Wham’, while ‘Frankie Says’ helped propel a string of highly controversial singles to the top of the UK charts for Liverpool. founded the band “Frankie Goes to Hollywood”. Bands, football teams, political parties, advertising agencies, organizers of business conferences, in fact anyone after a cheap promotion began to order and sell a huge number of t-shirts. One noble exception at the time was the now iconic Feed the World t-shirt, created to raise funds and promote the original and ground-breaking charity Band Aid.

During the 1980s and 1990s, T-shirt production and printing technology improved significantly, including early forms of DTG (direct-to-garment) printing, and increased in volume and availability. While in financial circles, global stock markets took note that the American T-shirt was classified as a commodity in the garment industry.

Branded corporate labels soon made a big mark on the industry. A whole new generation of t-shirt designs has flooded the market, promoting conformity and brand loyalty like Nike rather than expression of individuality. This rather uninspiring tradition continues to this day, with Next’s now-iconic ‘Vintage 82’ t-shirt, for example. For several years after the first printing, this design was allowed to flood the market until cheap copies and black market fakes saturated the world. There are many similar designs that have a similar limited cultural shelf life.

More recently, an inspiring movement to re-politicize the t-shirt has allowed pressure groups and charities to get their message across to a wider audience. More than a million people marched in London wearing a wide array of anti-war, Bush and Blair anti-Iraq t-shirts. Another example, reminiscent of the earlier Band Aid event, resulted in the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign receiving global media coverage. Not long after, Vivienne Westwood resurfaces in the t-shirt world with her new “I’m not a terrorist, please don’t arrest me” t-shirt. Catherine Hamnett, another famous British fashion designer, is well known for her protest t-shirts, including works aimed at highlighting Third World debt and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Again, Catherine was recently quoted as saying that shirts with a political slogan allow the consumer to “feel like they’ve participated in democratic action,” when in fact all they’ve done is make a small clothing purchase. That may be true, but they still attract huge amounts of media attention to any just cause.

Over the years the styles, images and contribution to a free society that t-shirts have made have been taken for granted, the t-shirt has now become an essential addition to any fashion wardrobe, no matter where in the world. Even more technical advancements in the industry have allowed for a wider variety of styles and cuts. Oversized t-shirts that reach the knees are popular in hip-hop and skater fashion. Seasons change, but from time to time, tighter “cropped” t-shirts, cut short enough to reveal the bottom, appear on the women’s market. The arrival of the hoodie or long-sleeve hoodie can’t be ignored, it’s also quickly becoming an essential addition to any streetwear collection.

Recently, there has been a mass reaction of consumers to the conformity of corporate brands in the market of corporate and licensed t-shirts. The consumer is finally regaining some sense of individuality, people today are not satisfied with the concept of “brand loyalty”. People want to reflect their personality, political beliefs, sense of style or humor. Some develop their own designs with a wide selection of online DIY t-shirt printing services, including Cafe Press and Threadless to name just two. But many people don’t have the time or desire to create their own artwork, and that means the rise of the independent t-shirt designer. Reminiscent of the 1960s, but with global appeal, artists, graphic designers, renegades of the fashion world are beginning to be noticed. The greatest value of the modern t-shirt is its originality, a quality that will always be in demand, both now and, hopefully, in the distant future.

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