Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Century of tees

Origin of the T-shirt is hazy, but online clothier says the simple garment has hit 100 anyway

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This year marks the 100th birthday of the T-shirt. Maybe.

It's clear the simple little garment has been around for many years and rose in popularity just as fashion was losing some of its starch. But no one knows exactly when the T-shirt as we know it was born.

What we do know is that in 1913, the U.S. Navy brought tees into public consciousness in a big way when it ordered a "light undershirt" for sailors to wear under uniforms.

 

Americans were likely taking their cue from European soldiers who had begun sporting lightweight cotton undergarments. But online T-shirt maker CustomInk, for one, has seized on the Navy's 1913 endorsement of the garment to trumpet the T-shirt's century mark, as well as round up its own list of iconic T-shirts through the ages.

Among them? A "Property of USC" T-shirt. Articles from the Los Angeles Times archives point to the year 1932, when USC football coach Howard Jones and athletic director Bill Hunter asked Jockey International Inc., to create a sweat-absorbent undershirt that would keep shoulder pads from chafing players' skin.

The shirts, stenciled with "Property of USC" to discourage theft, became wildly popular.

But T-shirts had entered the fashion lexicon years before that.

The first use of the word "T-shirt" in print was in 1920 in F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, according to fashion historian Heather Vaughan. Protagonist Amory Blaine sets out for New England, "the land of schools," and his list of supplies includes "six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T shirt."

So what was it that brought an undergarment out into the sunshine?

Three things were key, Vaughan said: Everyday wear was becoming more informal, sportswear was on the rise and men's relationship with their undershirts was changing.

In the late 1920s, she said, sleeveless undershirts were in. Then Clark Gable took off his shirt in the movie It Happened One Night (1934) to reveal his bare chest. But as men debated skipping the undershirt like Gable, they were donning T-shirts for day wear.

Hollywood reached a zenith of T-shirt hotness in the 1950s. A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 brought Marlon Brando bellowing, "Stella!" in a ripped T-shirt that revealed his well-muscled back. Then James Dean created a classic image in white tee and denim in Rebel Without a Cause.

CustomInk's top 100 iconic T-shirts include "Frankie say Relax," and Milton Glaser's 1977 design "I (heart) NY," which the site calls "one of the most worn T-shirts of all time."

The T-shirt has transformed from an undergarment into a personal billboard -- a carrier of messages, conveyor of attitude. Perhaps most startling, a century later, is that garment that started it all -- the plain white T-shirt.

 

-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 D13

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