The Origin of T-Shirts: U.S Navy to Motion Pictures

The genesis event that started the T-shirt on its way to mass appeal occurred in 1913 when the basic white T-shirt was made part of the standard uniform of the U.S. Navy. By the 1930s the T-shirt was being marketed as a men’s underwear product, referred to as a “gob shirt” or “gob-style” shirt, owing to its association with sailors.

During World War II T-shirts, though officially undershirts, became a pre­ferred choice as a comfortable warm weather garment, favored by American sailors serving in the South Pacific theater. After the war, T-shirts rose in acceptance as an underwear staple and in the 1950s, with navy veterans leading the way, moved to center stage as leisure and recreational apparel. Among the factors driving the increase in appeal and mass acceptance was the leading role performance of actor James Dean in the motion picture, Rebel Without A Cause in 1955. Hot on his critical success in East of Eden, Dean played a T-shirt-clad troubled teen and in so doing quickly attained celebrity as the reigning Hollywood symbol of alienation and volatility of the mid-50s youth culture. His death on September 30, 1955 effected the beginning of a personality cult following and whose adherents saw Dean’s T-shirt as an iconic representation of youth culture.

Marlon Brando, who like Dean embraced the naturalist ”method act­ing,” wore a white T-shirt under his leather motorcycle jacket in The Wild One. That visual permanently reinforced the “coolness” of T-shirts as the de rigueur apparel of the new American youth culture, as thor­oughly masculine, and what any self-respecting teen male, rebellious or otherwise, should be wearing, especially when the ladies were around. Elvis Presley, too, merits mention as another pop culture icon who pre­ferred wearing T-shirts when hanging out with his buds.

In the early ’50s screen printed T-shirts — and sweatshirts — appeared, initially within the custom arena encompassing schools, colleges, clubs, and summer camps. By the mid-60s, printed tees and sweats had earned permanent positions on the racks and shelves of souvenir stands and college bookstores.