God bless James Dean. His soul left us all prematurely and he left a legacy bigger than anyone could ever fathom. His charm was heartbreaking, setting alight schoolgirl fantasies and single handedly gave the simple t-shirt a nonchalant sex appeal like no one could. But the existence of the t-shirt dated since B.D (that’ Before Dean), and the iconic film star was not the first to don it (although we can all admit he (and those dreamy eyes!) deserve most of the credit!)
James Dean, bringing life into the humble tee.
There is no concrete evidence as to where or when exactly the t-shirt was produced. However there is documentation dating back to 1913 that the US Navy adopted the common white undershirt, crew necked and short sleeved, to be worn under overalls as to conceal a sailor’s chest hair. It started as the every-man’s under garment. Late 1930s saw Hanes, Sears and Fruit of the Loom marketing these shirts but thanks to a particular actor’s (here’s looking at you, Clark Gable. If every girl needed a Dean, every woman needed a Gable) undressing scene which revealed a bare chest instead of an undershirt, the sales of t-shirts took a back seat.
A U.S Merchant Marine Sailor in 1944
But Marlon Brando turned it all around when he appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire wearing a fitted white tee in the 1950s. Soon enough, the t-shirt became a widely accepted outerwear garment for boys and men of all ages and status. The 60s came and the staple clothing item became more than just every day wear. It became a means of self expression.
Marlon Brando on the poster of A Streetcar Named Desire
Tie dyes, slogans, peace symbols, and everything else you could think of was sprawled across t-shirts. Tees became a canvas for advertisements, publicity stunts, conveyed protest signs as well as a souvenir novelty, think about those `I (heart) NY’ tees and the iconic Rolling Stones tee shirt that both your dad, boyfriend and cool best friend has. Tropix Togs, a company based in Florida was the first to start decorating tees with resort names and characters in the 1950s. They were the original licensees for the Disney characters.
T-Shirts have come a long way from when they were merely worn as an undergarment. The tee as we know it is now the go-to clothing item for off duty models, rappers, celebrities, teenagers, and quite frankly, literally everybody you know. And t-shirts are not just limited to basic ones either, designers are making big bucks off them (Marc Jacobs released a design inspired by a graffiti artist who vandalized one of his stores) and the range of quality goes from your run-of-the-mill supermarket styles to paper thin Alexander Wang tees. You can see below just how far tees have come over the decades - from plain to bright and quirky designs!
By Medina Azeldin