A T-Shirt History Recap.

So far our t-shirt history series has shown how fading Victorian attitudes coupled with the rise of specialized garments for sports, along with the industrialization of cotton knitting production around the same time, were the catalyst for the genesis of the t-shirt. By the 1920s the world was beginning to feel the benefit of the incredible revolution in textile production. Cotton was rapidly replacing other, formerly staple textiles like wool and linen, as the go-to fabric of the time. Cotton dried faster, chaffed less and lent itself favorably to the industrial production processes being developed and refined at the time. As far as t-shirt history goes, the most significant development for this humble undergarment came in 1913 when it was adopted as a standard issue item of underwear by the U.S. Navy. The Royal Navy soon followed suit and, by the 1930s the T-shirt, and the Tank-top were making inroads in the military and working men’s wardrobes just about everywhere.

This revolution mirrored a revolution in social values too. Public rules about swimming and sunbathing became more relaxed from their starched, Victorian sensibilities. The T-shirt had separated from the one piece bathing suit and union-suit style of garments to become its own fashion item, and a considerably more practical one. By the late 1930s the most significant political event of recent history would slingshot the T-shirt out from its status as an undergarment to become the ubiquitous wardrobe staple that it is today, all thanks to World War Two. But first another important development for the history of t-shirts, and fashion in general, was happening in the laboratories in the United States and in England.

 

Fiber 6,6 and the Synthetic Fiber Revolution.

In 1935 DuPont Chemicals created something truly revolutionary; they called it “Fiber 6-6,” but everyone else called it Nylon. Nylon was the first truly practical synthetic polymer to find its way into mass production and did so in 1938 in the form of the bristles on a toothbrush. By the 1940s Nylon was rapidly replacing silk as the textile of choice for women’s stockings with the unique selling point being that it was a new “no-run” fabric which did not tear or break as easily as silk (especially stockings) did. Nylon literally kicked down the door for the use of synthetic fibers and polymers in clothing production and, once their use caught on, synthetic fibers were to reshape the clothing industry forever.

Although synthetic fabrics had been in use since before the second war it was in 1941 that the major breakthrough for clothing arrived through the invention of Polyester by two British scientists, James Dickson and John Whinfield. Along with Nylon, polyester would become one of the most widely used textiles in clothing production in the post-war era. Polyester, when blended and spun with cotton, improved cotton in an unprecedented way. The two fibers complemented each other perfectly: Where cotton could be rigid and firm, polyester was subtle and would stretch; if cotton picked up grime, stains and environmental dirt easily, polyester resisted staining, dyeing and coloring; where cotton could lose its shape and shrink, polyester would help it retain its original design, resisted shrinkage and improved the longevity of the cotton fibers. Cheap as cotton may have been, polyester still cost a lot less to manufacture and it wasn’t long before polyester came to be a familiar part of t-shirt construction and indeed t-shirt history.

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1. Life Magazine Cover, the t-shirt is drafted into the services.
2. Elvis Presley, “The King” gets the t-shirt treatment from the US Army.
3. The most famous aircrew of all-time: The Crew of the Enola Gay in their tees.

By the end of the second war the t-shirt, was rapidly becoming a staple item of men’s clothing around the world. Both the tank-top and, to a larger degree, the classic tee came to dominate men’s undergarments as the go-to items for beneath uniforms, overalls and even suits. However, the t-shirt seemed to imagine more for itself and, especially in hotter climates it was beginning to emerge as the singular item of clothing, no longer underneath, but on top.

The war in the Pacific exposed soldiers to extremes in temperature and humidity in the tropical climate found on the islands there. A ranking officer in a specialist unit in the Philippines, described his daily uniform as, “A pair of boots, chinos, a t-shirt, and a pith helmet.” Hardly standard military issue but dead-practical nonetheless. This is a victory of pragmatism and comfort over the superfluous and unnecessary. During the war the utility of the t-shirt became its biggest asset and advertisement. Seldom is one garment simultaneously a pillow, a towel, a protective mask, headgear, parasol, a tourniquet, protection against burns and from insects, and even a flag of surrender when caught in a pinch. T-shirts could be rolled up and easily stored, took up hardly any space in a kit bag and weighed next to nothing.

The media coverage of the war soon made the t-shirt the characteristic icon of the military and, as the tide of the war began to turn, the t-shirt became the symbolic uniform of the hero, the liberator, an instantly recognizable symbol of freedom and, along with chocolate and chewing gum the t-shirt became a powerful signifier of liberation and indeed, of America.

 

The T-Shirt Comes Home.

By 1948 the Army had finally come around to adopting the t-shirt as its own and the final evolution of the tee was in place, with its call-up to the army in full swing the modern ¾ length sleeve would become standard issue and the tee would be worn by rank and file alike in practically every sector of the services. However, it was the thousands upon thousands of returning servicemen who brought their t-shirts home and deployed them daily as the standard issue item of the demobilized American working class civilian. Soon the t-shirt would wrap itself around every level and fold of society. There was nowhere it could not go, not country club locker-room too snooty, not ghetto too grimy, no public office too polished, no civil service office nor corridor of power it couldn’t find a way into. John F. Kennedy wore them, as did Elvis Presley, Mickey Rooney, Humphrey Bogart, mailmen, milkmen. policemen, and even rockstars like The Beatles. The t-shirt was no longer an item of underwear, it had literally taken over and, in this revolution, it had become an acceptable item of outerwear.

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1. Mickey Rooney and Son, Rooney Snr. with the more sensible wardrobe choices..
2. Gene Kelly dons a T-shirt and immediately takes all the drudgery out of sweeping a floor..
3. Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless, an early indicator of the T-shirt’s unisex appeal and gender cross-over potential.

These early, classic cotton constructions from t-shirt history remain masterpieces of fashion design and textile engineering. The basic military tee your granddaddy went off to war in can still be found today with some smart shopping and an eye for quality. SpectraUSA pays homage to these early developments in t-shirt history and styling in three classic garments: The Basic Tee 2001, The hardier ring-spun workhorse of the SpectraUSA 2100, and the ultimate refinement of the Cotton Perfection 3100 (Check out our comparison table for a blow-by-blow breakdown of these classic styles). Finally, it is the SpectraUSA 3050 Bi-blend that is the modern update of this singular fashion item where the cottons are combined with polyester through a ring-spinning “Bi-blend” process, and later combed and dyed for softness and tempering of the fabric. You’ll easily recognize the trademark ¾ sleeve and the clean crew-neck in all these classically styled garments, just the way gramps wore them.

But our t-shirt history so far only tells one side of the tale, so far, women haven’t featured at all. Join us next week when the t-shirt will take on it’s most epic battle ever, crossing the gender gap and taking over female fashions.

Part 2 of our T-shirt history series – read Part 1 here or read Part 3 here.