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The T-shirt, at least 100 years old, suits us to a tee

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Published Sunday, July 7, 2013, at 9:23 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, July 7, 2013, at 10:56 a.m.

This year marks the 100th birthday of the T-shirt. Maybe.

It’s clear the simple little garment has been around for many, many years and rose in popularity just as fashion was losing some of its starch. But no one knows exactly when the T-shirt as we know it was born.

What we do know is that in 1913, the U.S. Navy brought tees into public consciousness in a big way when it ordered a “light undershirt” for sailors to wear under uniforms.

Americans were likely taking their cue from European soldiers who had begun sporting lightweight cotton undergarments. But online T-shirt maker CustomInk, for one, has seized on the Navy’s 1913 endorsement of the garment to trumpet the T-shirt’s century mark, as well as round up its own list of iconic T-shirts through the ages.

Among them? A “Property of USC” T-shirt. From the Southern California point of view, the “real” T-shirt was born there. Articles from the Los Angeles Times’ archives point to the year 1932, when legendary USC football coach Howard Jones and athletic director Bill Hunter asked Jockey International Inc. to create a sweat-absorbent undershirt that would keep shoulder pads from chafing players’ skin.

The shirts, stenciled with “Property of USC” to discourage theft, became wildly popular with students.

But T-shirts had entered the fashion lexicon years before that.

The first use of the word “T-shirt” in print was in 1920 in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” according to fashion historian Heather Vaughan. Protagonist Amory Blaine sets out for New England, “the land of schools,” and his list of supplies includes “six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T shirt.”

The T-shirt gained popularity in an era when the union suit fell by the wayside and underwear was becoming outerwear. What was it that brought an undergarment out into the sunshine?

Three things were key, Vaughan said: Everyday wear was becoming more informal, sportswear was on the rise, and men’s relationship with their undershirts was changing.

In the late 1920s, she said, the one-piece union suit was out, and sleeveless undershirts were in. Then Clark Gable took off his shirt in the movie “It Happened One Night” (1934) to reveal his bare chest. Legend has it there was a dip in undershirt sales, which may or may not be so. But as men debated skipping the undershirt like Gable, they were donning T-shirts for day wear.

It was part of the gradual change in fashion from the 1920s to the 1940s, said Vaughan, Western region president of the Costume Society of America.

“During this time, fashion became somewhat less formal,” she said, “and casual wear grew more distinct.”

French tennis player Rene Lacoste popularized in the 1920s a lightweight cotton knit shirt with short sleeves and a rib knit collar — the polo shirt. He moved to fashion design in 1933, Vaughan said, and men’s casual attire in that decade grew to include knit polo shirts, “with Henleys and T-shirts worn while playing sports.”

Graphic T-shirts got their real start around 1950 as the original licensee for Disney characters, Tropix Togs, adorned T-shirts with Mickey Mouse and a gun-toting Davy Crockett, among other characters.

Not long after, Hollywood reached a zenith of T-shirt hotness — the 1950s. “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951 brought Marlon Brando bellowing “Stella!” in a ripped T-shirt that revealed his well-muscled back. Brando wore his tee under leather in 1953’s “The Wild One.” Then James Dean created a classic image in white tee and blue denim in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Tie-dyed T-shirts became a symbol of the 1960s, when message shirts also came into their own.

Memorable images from the 1970s and ’80s were on the lighter side — the Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue, the happy face icon, the MTV logo. This era also saw the advent of the iron-on transfer. It was instant customization, as CustomInk notes.

The T-shirt has transformed from an undergarment into a personal billboard — a carrier of messages, conveyor of attitude.

Perhaps most startling, a century later, is that garment that started it all — the plain white T-shirt.

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