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Everybody Loves the T-shirt; A Brief History


By CJ Aykroid        October 16, 2017


The human torso ...what a perfect canvas to display art! Whether it's a painting, a cool or funny graphic with or without text, a political plea for a candidate, or maybe just a commercial ad for a beer brand or to promote a charity event. Am I talking about a tattoo? No, don't worry, doesn't require that kind of commitment ...I mean the great American t-shirt!


We walk around wearing one and it kind of goes viral, being seen by any number of people. The graphic can make viewers the laugh, be intrigued, thoughtful or these days, be outright shocked or appalled. We can easily "express" ourselves for sure! Most Americans, 95% (according to a survey commissioned by Custom Ink), own at least one t-shirt and nine out of ten have one deep in a dresser drawer that they can't part with because of an emotional attachment to it. It's also one of those things we might have take for granted in our culture.


T-shirts in the past have become "iconic" all by themselves. (See top 100 t-shirts in history), you will laugh when you see the top 3 (or 4). This list shows pop history as you go thru it, how many have you owned?


Did you know shirts can actually increase in value like fine art or limited edition prints? Sure, a collector, and yes, there are quite a few legitimate t-shirt collectors, primarily Rock & Roll t-shirts.


"One collector said that he sold

a Frank Zappa t-shirt from

the 1970's for $1500"


(Thats from 2013 or so). (The New York Times Magazine, Who Made That T-Shirt?. Also here is a good resource for collectors too)


Let's start at the beginning...The history of the t-shirt goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century. A descendant of the union suit, which originated in the nineteenth century, (you know, the underwear that cowboys have on after being woken up in the brothel by the bad guy in western films:)), being from an even earlier time. It was a one piece, long sleeve cover all affair with a flap on the bottom for the call of nature that buttoned when not in use. The one piece morphed into two, a top and bottom. The top lost the buttons, then became a single woven garment and was adopted by the US Navy as part of the uniform, (from Wikipedia) "These were a crew-necked, short-sleeved, white cotton undershirt to be worn under a uniform. It became common for sailors and Marines in work parties, the early submarines, and tropical climates to remove their uniform jacket, wearing (and soiling) only the undershirt."


Because of their cheapness and ease of cleaning, t-shirts soon became popular with working people, wearing them to cover themselves while working in warmer conditions. This also made t-shirts popular with young boys in many different patterns and colors. The word "T-shirt" started being used in everyday language and was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1920. Did you know the word was originally coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his book "This

Side Of Paradise"? (see (The New York Times Magazine, Who Made That T-Shirt?.)


During the depression, t-shirts were worn by more and more workers. Navy sailors wore them as underwear and soon removed the uniform top during less formal activities and wore it as casual wear.


"By the 1940s, T-shirts had become ubiquitous in high schools. A newspaper columnist named Nancy Pepper wrote that teenagers owned closets full of T-shirts and customized them with sew-on patches and fringe. She reported that some high-school boys even used their T-shirts to advertise that they were available for make-out sessions; around the necklines of their shirts, the boys inscribed the words, “Neck here.” "(The New York Times Magazine, Who Made That T-Shirt?)


Screen printed t-shirts were in limited use in 1942 and started gaining popularity after Life magazine published a story with a cover photo of the Air Corps Gunnery School t-shirt. After the film "Streetcar Named Desire" premiered in 1947 showing Marlon Brando wearing a t-shirt you started see a lot more kids as-well-as adults sporting the t-shirt!


Increasing popularity and then blowing up in the 1960's getting popular for self-expression, not to mention for ads, political protests and souvenirs.

T-shirts today are available in many designs, fabrics and styles which include crew-neck, v-neck and long sleeve. T-shirts are one of the most popular clothing items worn today. T-shirts are most used as branding devices for companies, products or just plain merchandise being relatively inexpensive to produce and purchase.


Screen printing has been the "go to" process for producing graphic t-shirts for many years but now many other techniques are being used to produce them including Heat Transfer Vinyl, Dye Sublimation, Airbrush, Tye Die, and straight up Hand painting on the shirts.

You can buy a t-shirt almost anywhere, Kohls, Target, Walmart, you name it! But

as a designer myself, I am fond of the online crowd-sourced websites like  RedBubble, Amazon Merch and TeePublic, and that

is just to name a few. is actually my favorite having great quality shirts, a great interface and superior customer service. Being a POD or Print On Demand, they can effectively print a high quality shirt economically and you can have it in a few days to a week. Other sites like Snorg and are actually just plain entertaining! I find myself just browsing and laughing...a form of entertainment just by itself!


So I assume you are reading this because you are one of the ninety five percenters that are into t shirts or at least are into fashion and style. This article is just the tip of the iceberg, whole volumes can written on this subject!


Find your favorite art and artist, and support him/her by ordering a shirt today!

You can wear it right on your chest and become a patron of the arts!




Check out the Ayktee's store on Teespring or Amazon and maybe get a few laughs by my designs!


For more reading and great articles check these out (sources):


The New York Times Magazine; Who Made That Shirt?


Custom Ink; The 100 Most Iconic T-Shirts of All Time.


Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia;  T-shirt


Collectors Weekly; T-shirts



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