Describing T-shirts as ubiquitous would be an understatement. They are more than everywhere. T-shirts are so prevalent that most of us have several of them in our closets and drawers. There are some people who love T-shirts so much they wear nothing else on the upper half. T-shirts are worn as work clothing, casual wear, and even formal wear.
Sometimes it seems like we Americans take our T-shirts for granted. That’s too bad. Learning a bit more about the history of the T-shirt reveals some interesting things. To that end, this post offers some fun facts about T-shirts. How many do you already know?
T-Shirts Started as Union Suits
According to Oakland-based T-shirt producer Nerd Kung Fu, the precursor to the modern T-shirt was something known as the union suit. A union suit is essentially a one-piece long underwear garment. Think of it as an underwear jumpsuit.
Union suits were pretty common back in the 19th century. Somewhere toward the late 1800s, factory workers and other manual laborers wanted undergarments that were a bit cooler. Not having access to anything other than their union suits, they broke out the scissors and changed history.
Cutting their union suits in half allowed them to pick and choose which half to wear at any one time. They cut off the sleeves to make the top half a bit cooler. It was this severed upper garment that eventually gave way to the T-shirt.
The First T-Shirt Was Marketed in 1904
Though no one knows for sure who actually invented the T-shirt, the first known instance of T-shirt marketing occurred in 1904 when the Cooper Underwear company started selling their bachelor undershirts. This should tell you what T-shirts were originally designed for. Rather than being standalone outer garments, they were sold as undershirts.
Men have been wearing T-shirts as undergarments for more than 100 years now. Even today, unadorned white T-shirts are sold in department stores and clothing boutiques as undergarments. Businessmen wear them to hide perspiration. So do police officers, firefighters, politicians, and so on.
The Military Adopted Them in 1905
Cooper Underwear was so successful marketing their bachelor undershirts that the U.S. Navy followed suit a year later. Beginning in 1905, the Navy uniform code required sailors to wear a white cotton undershirt without buttons. The Army followed a few years after that.
By the start of World War 1, undershirts were standard military issue. Sailors, soldiers, and airmen alike were required to wear the shirts with both dress and combat uniforms.
Tees Were Not Always Called T-Shirts
Believe it or not, the shirts marketed by Cooper Underwear and adopted by the U.S. military were known not as T-shirts at the time. In fact, the term itself wasn’t used until 1920. That’s when ‘T-shirt’ first appeared in the F Scott Fitzgerald novel This Side of Paradise. Even then, the term didn’t become part of the vernacular until the 1930s. Prior to ‘T-shirt’ becoming mainstream, the shirts were known as undershirts, jimshirts, bachelor shirts, and skivvies.
Bachelors Were the Original Target Audience
Speaking of bachelor shirts, Cooper Underwear targeted bachelors when they first started producing their T-shirts. The idea behind it was the belief that bachelors really didn’t have the time to deal with buttons. Bachelors didn’t know how to sew and had no desire to learn.
Buttonless undergarments could be worn without having to worry about buttons falling off. For the record, buttons were long an issue with union suits. Lose a couple of buttons and it would be hard to keep a union suit closed, thus limiting its ability to keep one warm.
The First Political T-Shirt Came from Thomas Dewey
Political T-shirts are pretty common nowadays. Everyone from presidents to state governors look to their campaigns to print up T-shirts they can distribute to the faithful. The T-shirts typically include the candidate’s slogan and some version of the red, white, and blue color palette. Some T-shirts even feature the candidate’s picture.
Despite being as prolific as they are, political T-shirts did not arrive on the scene until the late 1940s. Who was the first politician to capitalize on the T-shirt craze? It was none other than New York Governor Thomas Dewey. His campaign created the “Dew It with Dewey” T-shirt that went on to become one of the most visible icons of the 1948 presidential race.
Of course, today’s political T-shirts go way beyond campaigns. People of all political stripes use their T-shirts to spread the word among the masses. Some political T-shirts encourage, others offend. The one thing they all have in common is the importance of the message. The idea is to get the message in front of as many eyes as possible.
Graphic T-Shirts Came into Their Own in the 1950s
Although there were a limited number of graphic T-shirts printed between the 1930s and late 40s, the graphic T-shirt didn’t really come into its own until the 1950s. That is when companies began combining plain T-shirts with pop-culture icons and creative slogans.
Dabbling in graphic T-shirts eventually led to the concept of creating custom T-shirts on a one-off basis. It also led to a 1960s movement to plaster T-shirts with the names and images of popular rock bands. Band T-shirts and related paraphernalia really took off in the 1960s with the advent of screen printing.
T-Shirts Account for A Few Guinness World Records
This final fun fact might surprise you. Believe it or not, Guinness World Records has awarded a small number of records relating to T-shirt wearing. For example, the world record for the most T-shirts worn at any one time is 260. It belongs to a Canadian man by the name of Ted Hastings. He broke the previous record of 257 on February 17, 2019.
So, how many of these fun facts did you know? There are a lot more where they came from. If you have some time to kill, do your own research. You might learn some fascinating things.