A Brief History of the T-Shirt

It was 41 years ago that Elle magazine proudly declared the T-shirt the "summer sweater"; its editors were just discovering the Tee's versatility, something we today take for granted.

Wear it long and belt it, and it's a dress. Wear it tight and white, and you're Brando, Dean, Spillane or Kerouac. Color it and change the fabric, like the ladies of Elle, and yes, it could be insulation against those chilly days in late August.

From its 19th century origins as something with a Henley neck and buttons, through its early 20th century role as underwear, to its adoption by the U.S. Navy in 1913, the Tee has proven both survivor and chameleon.

But as it has endlessly been adapted, the Tee has gone from defining people's roles to being wholly defined by the wearer.

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It once marked you as someone—probably a guy; they wore most of the pants then, too—with greasy nails and hair. You were most likely blue-collar; you might have been in the military. After World War II, when countless GIs in white Tees had made the garment safe for mass consumption, Dads started wearing them to mow the lawn.

Hot rodders wore them 'cause hot rodders are cheap, and Tees are cooler when you're racing across the desert. So did bikers, who basically borrowed their Brando-era uniform from hot rodders.

Then people—lots of people—added their own personal statements, the best-known being the '60s-era "Make Love Not War." The Tee still defined them—but its believability quickly lapsed into banality.

Silkscreened with a faux tuxedo (or a bikini), the Tee collapsed under the weight of the joke—an iron-on, perhaps, reading "Tennis starts with love." Call it the irony-on.

Only a hefty dose of irony revived it—that and our growing realization that no one garment has the cultural capital of a T-shirt. No single item of clothing is so universally accepted. It's the American Express card of the fashion world.

As Casual Friday exerts its pull on the rest of the week, making the tuxedo, the three-piece suit—even the sports coat—seem so last century, the T-shirt remains as fresh as, well, a white Hanes crewneck Tee inspected by No. 34.

Not bad for a centenarian.

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