Like jeans, which were originally worn by cowboys and factory workers in America, and traces its history further back to Genoa in Italy (recalling pizza) to become a fashion statement, T-shirts, too, had a humble beginning. But, today, the ensemble of jeans and T-shirt is the epitome of casualness and a carefree attitude, underlining why they are favoured by young men and women. But, it wasn’t so always. T-shirts, which may be celebrating their centenary, started their sartorial journey in the 19th century through the separation of the one-piece “union suit” underwear into top and bottom garments.
Fashion historian Josh Sims notes in the Icons of Men’s Styles that the Royal and US navies shortened the sleeves of their servicemen’s undershirts to leave the arms “free when they performed deck chores or manned armaments”. During the Spanish-American war, these were issued as a crew-necked, short-sleeved, white cotton undershirts. It became common, however, for sailors in work parties, submarines and tropical climates to remove their uniform jackets and wear only the undershirt.
Named T-shirt due to its shape, it caught on among workers. By the time of the Great Depression, the T-shirt was often the default garment for farm and ranch work. Slowly, it evolved: taking to cotton, insinuating into civilian life. “You needn’t be in the army to have your own personal T-shirt”, advertised Sears in the run-up to USA’s entry into the Second World War. Since it fitted easily, could be cleaned easily and was inexpensive, T-shirts became the shirt of choice for youths. Without the publicity provided by a million chests, Che Guevara and Bob Marley wouldn’t have been half as famous. Many T-shirts of the 1970s have become part of pop culture. Now, MNCs and social movements use them to spread their message — a memorable upward mobility for an undershirt.