History of T-Shirts

The t-shirt has evolved from basic underwear and military attire to a wearable form of self-expression. Along the way, the modern tee has been shaped by pop culture influence and the invention of screen-printing and plastisol.

You know that old band t-shirt with the holes in it you still have from college? We’re willing to bet you’ll never get rid of it because of all the fond memories. After all, you had front row seats to that concert and even grazed the lead singer’s hand during a power ballad.

Why do you love your custom tees so much? When were t-shirts invented? Let’s explore the fascinating history of promotional t-shirts!

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How quickly the T-shirt has taken over our culture. Look around and you will see nearly everyone, people of every age and body type, wearing t-shirts.

Tim Gunn, A Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet

Hour Glass

History of T-Shirts Timeline

Explore the fascinating history of the t-shirt in this interactive timeline. From early cotton undershirts to screen-printed tees, see the evolution of t-shirts from the 1900s to today.

  • 1913

    Source: scoopdeck.navytimes.com

    The US Navy made the bachelor undershirt a standard part of the military uniform. The breathable fabric was comfortable enough to be worn during training, as well as in combat.

  • 1939

    Source: shirtworks.co.uk

    The first promotional t-shirt was printed for the movie The Wizard of Oz. In the film, a trio of Ozians wear green shirts to bring attention to the great and powerful man in the Emerald City.

  • 1940s

    Source: theshirtlady.com

    Sears advertised “gobs” inspired by military undershirts in their iconic Roebuck and Co. Catalog. These shirts were promoted as both underwear and casual outerwear.

  • 1948

    Source: doubledcycles.blogspot.com

    Political statement t-shirts were a large part of campaigns, such as New Yorker Thomas E. Dewey’s run for governor. The iconic “Dew it with Dewey” shirt made a major impression with voters.

  • 1951

    Source: allposters.com.au

    Marlon Brando brought machismo to the white tee and started a massive fashion movement in the United States. James Dean and Elvis Presley also made waves in their tight-fitting tees.

  • 1956

    Source: wycovintage.com

    This tee was the very first band t-shirt, showing the King in his prime. The shirt sports the names of four classic songs by the legendary rock ‘n’ roll icon.

  • Late-1950s

    Source: eventcity.wordpress.com

    Tropix Togs brought screen-printing to the mainstream with their iconic Mickey Mouse t-shirt. The design brought even more attention to Disney’s films and theme parks.

  • 1960s

    Source: founditemclothing.com

    The Rolling Stones found satisfaction in printed t-shirts featuring their iconic logo. Music enthusiasts rocked these tees, as well as other band shirts like The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.

  • 1970s

    Source: dailymail.co.uk

    The iconic “God Save the Queen” t-shirt became a controversial piece of apparel for the Sex Pistols. In fact, their song of the same name was banned on radio airplay from the BBC in 1977.

  • 1975

    Source: metv.com

    The playful “I’m with Stupid” t-shirt made its debut in 1975, insulting anyone standing next to you, but also showing you associate with stupid people. This tee turned the power of screen-printed messages on its head. 

  • 1977

    Source: penporium.com

    Former New York Governor Hugh Carey shows off his “I Love New York” tee. This classic shirt was designed by Milton Glaser and brought tourism to the Big Apple.

  • 1984

    Source: theguardian.com

    Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the one-hit wonder behind “Relax Don’t Do It,” made history with this popular t-shirt. The band is all smiles as they show off their iconic design.

  • 2000

    Source: moteefe.com

    The phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” started in 1939, but gained momentum after a bookshop in Britain hung up a poster with the quote. Today, you’ll find variations of this saying on a wide selection of t-shirts.

  • 2004

    Source: moteefe.com

    The cult classic Napoleon Dynamite started a wave of “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts. No word yet as to whether or not anyone actually voted for Pedro.

  • 2013

    Source: campaign.co.uk

    Major companies started getting creative with their custom tees. In 2013, Coca-Cola released their original “Wearable Movie,” which told a story through promotional t-shirts. 

  • 2016

    Source: mentalfloss.com

    In this data-driven world, there’s no underestimating the power of good Wi-Fi. This revolutionary t-shirt detects available networks and their strength with the power of 3 AAA batteries!

Source: americandigest.com

Bachelor Party

The t-shirt was first introduced in 1904 when the Cooper Underwear Company ran a magazine ad for a “bachelor undershirt.” Later, this company became known as Jockey. You know, the brand that shows celebrities in their tighty-whities.

Source: americandigest.com

The bachelor undershirt introduced by the Cooper Underwear Company was revolutionary as it was stretchy enough to be pulled over the head and didn’t require safety pins or any thread to be worn. The target audience was bachelors who were assumed to not know how to sew. Before the bachelor undershirt, men wore one-piece undergarments known as “union suits,” which were a more masculine form of long johns. This lightweight attire came complete with butt flaps that could be unbuttoned in moments of need. Needless to say, the cotton undershirt was considered a bit more manly and rugged than the union suit.

Did you know?

The Cooper Underwear Company’s tagline was “no safety pins, no buttons, no needle, no thread".

All Hands on Deck

The Navy soon discovered the appeal of cotton undershirts. In 1913, the bachelor undershirt became standard issue underwear for the Navy. From there, many positions of manual labor adopted the garment due to its lightweight design and functionality. This included construction workers, dockworkers, farmers, miners, and the US Army, who would eventually require the undershirts to be worn during both World Wars.

How Did the T-Shirt Get Its Name?

The “bachelor undershirt” didn’t evolve to be the “t-shirt” until about 1920. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited as being the first to refer to the garment as a “t-shirt.” In his famous novel This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald includes a t-shirt in the list of supplies a character brings with him to boarding school. The author referred to the garment as a “t-shirt” presumably because of its shape. At the time, this wardrobe staple best represented the style of the youth in New England.

Fun Fact!

Fitzgerald is also credited with inventing many other words we use today including: daiquiri, well-concealed, and wicked (as in awesome).

How Did Soldiers Start the T-Shirt Trend?

Although t-shirts were in style since the early 1900s, World War II officially cemented them as “the emblem of manliness” in the United States. These t-shirts were screen-printed with the words “US Army Property” and the soldier’s identification number. Many veterans brought their undershirts home from the war and would wear them as regular apparel. This caused a trend of civilians turning to the comfortable and versatile t-shirt.

Eventually these tees, known at the time as “gobs,” were sold by popular retailer Sears. The department store released their popular Roebuck & Co. catalog with the message, “You needn’t be a soldier to have your own personal t-shirt.”

Source: blog.mydreamstore.in

When You Wish Upon a Star...

While slogan t-shirts have been around since the twenties, they didn’t really take off until a few decades later. In the late 1950s, Walt Disney started using promotional t-shirts to market his brand. Miami-based company Tropix Togs acquired the rights to print Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters to promote the theme park and films. These were seen as wearable souvenirs and soon other popular tourist spots began offering their own personalized t-shirts.

Source: pinterest.com

The custom designs on these shirts were made possible through screen-printing and just about anything imaginable could be printed. This was big news for style enthusiasts, as well as companies looking to market their brands. Screen-printing proved to be a valuable method for promotional materials. In fact, there are even classes dedicated specifically to screen-printing, such as the immersive course taught at Ball State University!

Source: pinterest.com
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A custom t-shirt identifies what an individual is interested in and says a lot about that person. It tells other people who they are and what they enjoy.

Rene Church, Assistant Professor of Art, Ball State University

Movie Magic

T-shirts didn’t become a real fashion statement until 1951 when Marlon Brando showed off his biceps in a tight-fitting tee in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando’s performance caused an incredible surge in t-shirt sales across the nation with a reported $180 million in sales. Stella!

After Brando came a wave of other bad boys wearing the iconic white tee, such as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Elvis Presley who was photographed in his standard issue U.S. Army undershirt. This style went beyond just the rich and famous. “Greasers” from this era also exuded confidence in their plain white tees. According to an article released by Canada’s National History Society in 2015, they would roll up cigarettes and store them in the sleeves.

Source: images5.fanpop.com
Source: images4.fanpop.com
Source: themannequinsmind. files.wordpress.com

After Brando came a wave of other bad boys wearing the iconic white tee, such as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Elvis Presley who was photographed in his standard issue U.S. Army undershirt. This style went beyond just the rich and famous. “Greasers” from this era also exuded confidence in their plain white tees. According to an article released by Canada’s National History Society in 2015, they would roll up cigarettes and store them in the sleeves.

Another Brick in the Wall

Riding the wave of slogan t-shirts, the screen-printing industry really took off during the rebellious music scene in the 1960s. With the invention of plastisol (an ink that was durable enough to last on fabric) in 1965, the possibilities were endless as to what could be printed. Popular bands like Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones used iconic logo t-shirts to promote their music.

The History of Punk T-Shirts: Anarchy in the Promo World

Following the trend of self-expression, the punk music scene took shape in London and New York in the mid-1970s. This urban culture was about rebelling against the establishment, disregarding societal norms, and creating endless chaos for the sake of chaos. While punk music stood against consumer goods, the culture was ironically promoted on branded tees. The custom t-shirt played a major role in the disorder of the time, with fans wearing tees with provocative slogans and images. People would even go as far as to burn a hole, cut or rip the fabric, and splatter paint on their tees as a stand against materialism. These do-it-yourself, slogan t-shirts revealed an individual’s thoughts on political issues, cultural preferences, and sense of humor. Furthermore, the ragtag design made its way into other areas of branding, including posters in dive bar bathrooms and on telephone poles.

Source: cvltnation.com

Bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols had their own iconic designs that fans would proudly wear. If you had a band t-shirt at the time it was a much bigger deal since these tees weren’t as mass-produced as they are today. Not only did the t-shirts promote the music, but they also served as advertisements for the record companies and radio stations that would play these bands.

Source: cvltnation.com
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Promotional band tees work as bald-faced billboard ads. They start a conversation. The tee is the first thing you see when you look at someone and it sends a message.

Martin Popoff, Music Journalist

Where Did the “I Love New York" T-Shirt Come From?

Big advertising companies took notice of the cultural impact made by statement and band t-shirts. This included advertising agency Wells Rich Greene who was responsible for creating one of the most recognizable graphic prints in history. The iconic “I Love New York” t-shirt made its debut in 1977 and was designed by Milton Glaser as part of a campaign to bring tourism to the Big Apple. No one expected the artwork to have such an impact. In fact, Glaser designed the logo on a napkin and offered his design for free to the New York State Department of Commerce!

From there, major companies began using t-shirts to promote their brands including Coca-Cola, Adidas, and Dodge.

Today’s Promo T-Shirts

Promo T-Shirts Are a Hit!
When it comes to promoting your brand, you can’t go wrong with custom tees. There are over 30,000 promotional products distributors in the world, most keeping personalized t-shirts in stock at all times. In fact, Hit Promotional Products, a top-ranked supplier in the promo industry, produces upwards of 100,000 t-shirts every day!

The Power of Promotional Tees
Whether you go to a concert, baseball game, or community picnic, you’re likely to see custom tees at all of these events. Why? Branded t-shirts are wearable statements that bring attention to your brand. They provide a form of self-expression unlike any other promotional product!

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Everyone has that favorite t-shirt they wear everywhere. You wear it to the movies, dinners, sporting events, shopping. Every time the customer puts on that t-shirt and ventures out, they become a walking billboard for the company or brand.

Kevin Bloomquist, Vice President of Apparel at Hit

Who Uses Promotional T-Shirts?

Just about any brand or company can turn to promotional t-shirts for advertising. According to Hit Promotional Products, there are some industries that rely on the classic tee for almost all of their branding efforts. Take a look at some of the top industries that promote with custom tees!

Bands/Concerts
How else would you remember that trip to Lollapalooza or the first time you saw The Rolling Stones without buying your very own concert tee?

Charities
Whether you’re hosting a 5K or community bake sale, personalized t-shirts are a great way to get the word out about your cause.

Sporting Events
Maybe you didn’t catch the home run ball in your seat behind right field, but you got the next best thing with a free shirt from the cannon!

Tech Companies
When they’re not developing the newest smartphone or virtual reality headset, techies are busy promoting their brands with t-shirts.

While these industries love their t-shirts, there is really no limit to who can promote with a classic tee. Whether you’re a small startup or a large Fortune 500 powerhouse, the right design guarantees a large number of impressions for your company.

Stats for Success

Approximately 2 billion t-shirts are sold each year.

T-shirts were the top promotional products of 2016.

58% of US consumers own a promotional t-shirt.

90% of Americans own at least one t-shirt they refuse to throw away because of sentimental attachment.

The Bottom Line

T-shirts have a very interesting history based in cultural movements. From the US Navy to New York, graphic tees have become a staple item for making a statement. What started as a military essential has evolved to become the branded casualwear in our closets and dressers today. With so much history, it’s safe to say promotional t-shirts will never go out of style!

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the super cool Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. She’s a fan of diving into the history of some of the earliest promos on the planet. If you need her, you’ll find her buried in research, in the middle of a phone interview, or singing way off-tune in her office.

References

Kennedy, Pagan, The New York Times, “Who Made That T-Shirt?”

Smallwood, Karl, Gizmodo, “How the T-Shirt Was Invented”

Steinmetz, Katy, Time Magazine, “Why F. Scott Fitzgerald Is All Over the Dictionary”

Demain, Bill, Mental Floss, “A Brief and Incomplete Timeline of T-Shirt History”

Melmarc, “History of the Graphic T-Shirt”

Union Ink, “General Info About Plastisol Ink”

Breyer, Melissa, Mother Nature Network, “13 iconic moments in the history of the T-shirt”

Geier, Stephanie, Untapped Cities, “NYC Fun Facts: The Surprising History of the Iconic ‘I Love NY’ Logo”

Curley, Maribeth, Shirt.com, “Vintage T-Shirts Through the Decades”

Real Thread, “Why T-shirts Will Be Your Best Marketing Strategy”

Wallander, Mattias, Huffington Post, “T-Shirt Blues: The Environment Impact of a T-Shirt”

Think It, “Top Promotional Products 2016”

Valdes, Michelle, Linked In, “Statistics on Promotional Items in the US”

Tee Compressed, “The Anatomy of A Successful Promotional T-Shirt”

Martin, Simon, Ceros Blog, “The Art of Chaos: Punk Rock’s Timeless Influence on Graphic Design”

Centeno, Antonio, The Art of Manliness, “A Man’s Guide to Undershirts: History, Styles, and Which to Wear”