T-Shirts: From Ancient Underwear to Everyone’s Go-To

From free event giveaways to expensive designer styles, most people have owned dozens of t-shirts throughout their lives. This wardrobe staple is important for good reason–a t-shirt is one of the only articles of clothing that’s perfect for working out, sleeping, spending time with friends, and pretty much everything in between. But if you turn back the clock and look at the origins of today’s closet MVP, you might be surprised how much change the t-shirt has gone through to get to this point. 

Warrior Wardrobe Essential

In ancient times, the t-shirt was first worn by warriors. Serving as a protective barrier between fragile skin and unsanitary chain mail, medieval soldiers often wore t-shirts under their armor to stay safer and cleaner during battle. It wasn’t long until civilians caught on and started donning t-shirts themselves, for the same reasons of increased hygiene and safety. 

Although the t-shirt today is considered an acceptable outfit on its own, it wasn’t until very recently that it graduated from underwear to full-fledged garment. From the medieval villagers who first discovered them to the royalty who wore them underneath tight corsets to prevent chafing, t-shirts actually began as a luxury for people who could afford that extra barrier between skin and clothes. T-shirts were also originally intended to work the other way around and protect clothes from the harmful effects of friction and sweat, making them even more important for wealthy people whose clothes were incredibly valuable. 

Underrated Undershirt

Around the start of the 20th century, however, t-shirts started to come down from high society and actually get back closer to their military roots. In 1913, the Navy started requiring that all officers wear t-shirts under their uniforms to make them last longer and save money–just like the medieval warriors from a thousand years ago. This time, instead of becoming a luxury for the wealthy, undershirts began to catch on with everyday people. Companies like Fruit of the Loom noticed the trend and started producing a wide variety of shapes and styles, from crew cut to V neck, to appeal to the masses. 

Just when it started to seem like the t-shirt was doomed never to see the light of day, something crazy happened–celebrities started wearing t-shirts and nothing else, a super scandalous move at the time. 1950’s icons like Marlon Brando and James Dean consistently wore t-shirts both on- and off-screen in movies like Rebel without a Cause and A Streetcar Named Desire, sparking everyone else to rethink the possibilities of their favorite cotton undershirt. The trend even spread to more “sophisticated” celebrities like presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, who created the first-ever slogan t-shirt for his “Do it with Dewey” campaign. 

King of the Closet

Today, t-shirts have a wide variety of applications from marketing to youth sports to comedy TV shows. A far cry from their origin as military dress and taboo undergarments, t-shirts have become a modern American staple and have spread throughout the world. You can find people wearing t-shirts on pretty much any occasion, from doing yard work to attending church. 

Not only has the number of people wearing this garment increased, but so has the amount of people manufacturing the garment. Since no company has the sole rights to the t-shirt, virtually every clothing brand has their own variation on the classic, changing the color, fit, fabric, and adornments to fit their target customer.

Many t-shirts nowadays are actually blended fabrics made from combinations of cotton, polyester, rayon, linen, and countless other fabric types.  Because of this flexibility with fabric options, t-shirts run the gamut from form-fitting to loose and boxy. Recently, wearing men’s t-shirts has become a huge trend in women’s fashion, with fabrics like cotton and polyester allowing men’s shirts to highlight feminine curves.

Transcending gender, age, time, and occasion, the t-shirt has risen up the ranks of fashion for the past 1,000 years, morphing from an ancient battle precaution to a beloved item found in closets around the world today. So next time you throw on a t-shirt and run some errands, be sure to send up a little thank-you to Marlon Brando.