The T-Shirt Evolution

With every generation move stars have worn them. Rock stars have shredded them. And celebrities have stripped them. Paris anyone? The t-shirt has been the fashion essential for over 70 years and probably another 70 years and more. So how did it get here it and what does the future hold?

Origins-Call to Arms in Short Sleeves

The t-shirts humble beginnings can be traced back to the early 1930s. WWI European soldiers entrenched in mud wore the t-shirt as an undergarment. The advantages of light cotton underwear were quickly adopted by the US military. By WWII the US Army and Navy had supplied the t-shirt as standard issue. T-shirts at the time were still considered underwear and not worn casually.

1950’s –Cult Movie Bad Boys

With the help of a sweating Brando in the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and later a brooding James dean in Rebel without a Cause” the t-shirt had moved to mainstream youth culture. By the time Elvis had gyrated, the Teenage rebellion seen was planted and along with denim jeans, the t-shirt had become the fashion statement.

1960’s –From Beatniks to Vietnam

The ’60s were well known for social upheavals and political events. Many subcultures developed from Beatniks, Mods Rockers to eventually Hippy’s. During the early ’60s, The Beatles had ignored the t-shirt opting for their trademark suits. But by the late ’60s, the haze of the Hippy generation had created the tie-dyed t-shirt. Dunked in several buckets of colorful dyes it became a symbol of the psychedelic era and possibly one of the worst fashion crimes of the century. Other t-shirt styles were born including the ringer, muscle, V-neck, and tank t-shirts. The invention of screen printing saw social and political slogans expressed apparel especially for the antiwar sentiments of Vietnam.

1070’s – Your Disco Needs you

Rock emerged beating to death the Hippies with their own sandals. The black t-shirt was now standard issue with printed logos of stadium rock Supergroups such as Let Zeppelin, ACDC, and Pink Floyd. In the course of the mid-’70s, Surf apparel started appearing. Niche surfing brands such as lightning Bolt, Billabong, Rip Curl, and Quicksilver would later become big corporations. Athletic giants Adidas, Puma, Reebok, and Nike also gained prominence with their branded printed tees, shoes, and apparel. The decade was also known for its many classic t-shirt mottoes including the Smiley face, “Sh’t Happens” and “I Love NY” which would see a revival after 911.Fonzie in the TV sitcom. Happy Days paid homage to Brando and Dean 20 years before by reintroducing the black-white tee. In 1977 the Star Wars phenomenon had exploded. Star Wars t-shirts were everywhere for the tween. But for the twenty something’s there was of course Disco. With movies like Saturday Night Fever and Thank God it’s Friday the flared trouser and Tight t-shirts become the usual 70’s silhouette.

1980’s –Fashion beep beep

The influence of music had an extreme effect on fashion in the ’80s. The new Romantic movement in the early ’80s had passed on the simple tee, opting for a more extravagant look. Remember flock of Seagulls? On the opposite spectrum, the Punk movement was in full flight with black ripped-up tees, Doc Marten boots, piercing and lots and lots of hair gel.

By the mid-’80s the Japanese fashion influence had caught on. Designers Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake had reinvented the t-shirt to a large oversized kimono style cut. Katherine Hamnett in 1984 took it even further with a notable “Choose Life” Print which was immediately embraced by Wham! In their video “Wake me up Before you Go-Go”. Not long after Frankie said “Relax” and the Smiths said “Meat is Murder” regurgitating the political t-shirt.

From the oversized tee stemmed the woman’s t-shirt dress which developed into neon and day-glow colors

Springsteen brought the jeans and t-shirt back to basic with rolled up macho sleeves during his Born in the USA phase. For the MTV generation, Armani took the t-shirt to high fashion wearing the tee underneath a suit jacket. Of course, the suit jacket sleeves were rolled up ale Crocket and Tubbs Miami Vice style ( Parodied exceptionally in that Friends episode).

1990’s –Come as you are

Surf tees saw a rebirth pioneered by new brands Stussy and Mossimo. Also adopted by Skater long sleeve t-shirt become ever more popular. The Hypercolor t-shirt fad where the fabric changed color with heat was very popular. Entertainingly if the wearer worked up a sweat big unsightly patches of a color change would occur around the armpits.

Again the influence of music came back into play. Hip Hop proved it wasn’t a phase adopting at first Adidas as a brand. Later various Rap Specific brands emerged such as Sean John and Phat Farm, Dance, Trance and DJing gained prominence and tighter and sleeveless t-shirts worn with baggy paints become the mode. Grunge anti–fashion also took the tee in another direction with a dark worn appearance.

21st Century Brand Child

According to branding experts Al and Laura Ries in the book “The  Origin of Brands”. As a product category evolves the category then diverges further into more categories. Like a tree, some branches may whither and die while others will further grow and diverge again. This is probably best explained by the invention of TV. The TV has diverged from the humble B & W television to many other categories. We now have CRT, Plasma, LCD, HDTV, Rear Projection, portable and widescreen.

There is no doubt that divergence has affected the t-shirt. The shape of the t-shirt itself has diverged to anywhere from tight, regular, hip hop lose to a baby tee. With the advent of the internet, we’ve seen a boom smaller t-shirt label startups. Now there are so many categories we are almost overwhelmed by choice. Some t-shirt  categories are:

  • Skate brands: Hurley international, Globe, Element, Volvo, World
  • Surf Brands: Billabong, Mambo, Rip Curl Rusty Quicksilver which has diverged to girl surf category Roxy.
  • Snowboard Brands : Burton, Salomon
  • Hip Hop Brands: Seen John, Ecko, G-Unit Phat Farm.
  • Martial Arts Brands: Drunken Munky and various Bruce lee and Chuck Norris logos.

The Future

So which category branches will wither and die and which survive to the next decade? Would you rather look like Eminem, Kelly Slater, or Tony Hawks? And what is a t-shirt anyhow? Is it a simple apparel design with a colored screen printed artwork featuring a hobby, sport, band or affluence that you Amy identify with? Or is it a product branded, marketed, and directly mass-produced for your particular demographic?

Either way T-shirts have become a billion dollar industry.

What next for the now not so humble tee? We’re seeing 21st Century fibers like Gortex, Merino wool, and lycra blends being used. As for logos some growing trends seem to be Video Game t-shirts, internet t-shirts, and Poker t-shirts. Will these be the next surf or skate brands? Quite possible. Will others develop out of our favorite pastime? Could there even be a Sudoku brand, a MySpace brand, a Porn brand, or an iPod brand of t-shirts? Perhaps design your own new black? One thing is certain; history has shown us that there will be even more diversification far into the next decades. The power of the t-shirt has never been greater. Awesome!

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