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History of T-shirts

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The t-shirt today is one of the most comfortable categories. It finds space at almost every occasion. In fact, it is the comfort quotient that has made t-shirt the favourite of youth across generations. Images Business of Fashion maps the History of this essential fashion category to trace how it has Evolved from a basic undershirt vest to a holistic style statement.

T-shirts were not always as they are today. In the 19th century they were being worn as a vest and an undergarment. During World War I, European soldiers used to wear a light knitted under-shirt beneath their uniforms. They were viewed with envy by American troops who had to wear heavy and scratchy uniforms. And, by the World War II American navy and army also started wearing basic knitted under-shirt, which proved as a big relief from heavy and sweaty uniforms.

This was just the beginning, people copied the soldiers and soon t-shirt became popular as an undergarment. In 1910, American retailer Jacob Goldfrab started making the cotton t-shirts under his brand, Fruit of the Loom. In no time he captured the t-shirt market. By the late 1930s American brands such as Hanes, Sears and Roebuck & Co started marketing the t-shirts.

P H Hanes, founded in 1901 and became Hanes in 1965 introduced a two-piece underwear which was a radical departure from the traditional one piece union suit that is popular at that time. After the birth of t-shirts in America, the brand became one of the pioneer retailers to produce t-shirts. In 1975 Hanes came up with a heavier-weight t-shirt, called the Hanes Beefy-T, specifically for the screenprint industry. Later, in the same year the brand developed the screenprinter fold eliminating the additional cost and handling of individual packaging.

On the other side, sportsmen also realised the potential of t-shirts. The association of t-shirt with sports is a signifi cant chapter in the history of t-shirts. Celebrated tennis player, René Lacoste introduced Lacoste tennis shirts with French knitwear manufacturer, André Gillier. Before Lacoste sports t-shirts were invented, players were wearing button-down woven fabric, long-sleeved and starched shirts. In 1933, Lacoste came to make the logo- embroidered t-shirt designed by Lacoste for his own use in the tennis court. Then, Lacoste t-shirts were also marketed to number of other tennis, golf and sailing shirts. The first Lacoste shirt was white, slightly shorter than other shirts of the day, with a ribbed collar and short sleeves. It was made of a light knitted fabric called jersey petit piqué. The features like comfort and solidity on which the t-shirt was designed is still maintained providing a different and truly unique product. Perhaps , the concept of layering t-shirt also has its roots from Sports.

People took no time to realize the potential of t-shirts and it turned out to be a kind of human billboard with slogans and messages. Political slogans were the fi rst to get printed on t-shirts. In 1948, New York governor Thomas E Dewey came up with fi rst message t-shirt, Dew it for Dewey, he used the slogan t-shirt for the presidential campaign. Next in the row was I Like Ike worn by the supporter of Dwight Ike Eisenhower. From here, the t-shirt became fashion expression to ideological expression. T-shirts casted their spell on media too, and the covers of various fashion magazines were decorated with models in t-shirt. Around 1950, while TV in Britain was promoting a suit and tie affair, a lot of movie stars such as Marlon Brando, John Wayne and James Dean were popularising the t-shirt culture on the US television.

This promoted t-shirts as a garment to flaunt the male pecks and men who wore it were seen as stereotype violent and brutal. Think of Marlon Brando wearing a regular round neck t-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire. Or recall Raging Bull released in 1980 in which the protagonist, Jake LaMotta, played by Robert de Niro, wears the vest and beats his wife. This all new trend spread as the street gang culture of North America and people from different groups were seen wearing the t-shirts.

Then came the rock t-shirts which became the cult in the history of fashion. The fi rst rock t-shirt came from the Elvis Presley fan club in 1956. Then the black t-shirt emerged as an essential to wear at rock concerts by both, performers and audience. The black t-shirts used to have brand’s name and the image. People started collecting them to present and reinforce the sentiments of a club or group. Today, they have become the iconic souvenirs. The genre of slogan t-shirts has become more elaborate as there are several themes such as violent slogans to political, inspirational and funny.

T-shirts came on the ramp in 1962 when a luxury designer label Christian Dior designed a range of t-shirts for its summer collection. In 1965 Budweiser was the fi rst brand to use t-shirt as a prevalent marketing tool. In this decade many popular brands arose and t-shirt as a category become the hot trend. In 1972 Ralph Lauren launched his fashion brand named after the sport of the wealthy and the royals – Polo.

There was an era in which Lacoste and Ralph Lauren were in the leadership competition of polo t-shirts. However, Locaste lost the battle due to its over saturating market and strong branding of Polo. During 1980s t-shirts became a part of almost every wardrobe. Brands focused on colours, designs and styles. Wrinkle-free t-shirts were also introduced in the same era. Gradually, the trend of customised t-shirts came and new techniques were being used, litho-transfer is one of them. This further accelerated the concept of personalised t-shirts and a lot of brands, companies, rock bands, schools, universities used t-shirt as a tool of branding and a medium to present the opinion.

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