The history of the T-shirt

When this underwear becomes outerwear it bridges class and gender.

Written by Jessica Knapp

May 31, 2015

Illustration
Cut from the union suit — a full-bodied undergarment for men — the T-shirt remained hidden for years before finally taking centre stage as a fashion staple. In 1913, American sailors adopted T-shirts under their uniforms. In Canada, the navy made the T-shirt official garb for sailors in 1939; the army and air force didn’t follow suit until 1963, when the armed forces introduced a unified uniform. The popularity of the garment exploded in 1951 in both Canada and the U.S. when actor Marlon Brando wore a basic white T-shirt in A Street Car Named Desire. In 1965, plastisol ink for fabrics was patented, allowing screen printing. T-shirts were no longer expected to remain a blank canvas.

Fast Facts

  • The T-shirt was named in the 1920s in reference to its shape when laid out.
  • T-shirts were typically made of cotton because it was cheap.
  • Early T-shirts featured a round neckline — the crew neck. The V-neck came later.
  • Greasers of the 1950s often rolled packs of cigarettes in their T-shirt sleeves.
  • Canadian soldiers today wear green T-shirts, while sailors wear black, and air force personnel wear blue.
  • T-shirts were soon adorned with decals that sent messages or sold brands.
  • By the 1970s, T-shirts were popular with both men and women.
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