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T-Shirts Journey From Lowly Underclothing to High Fashion Icon

T-Shirts Journey From Lowly Underclothing to High Fashion Icon

T-shirts are likely the one piece of clothing you own more than anything else and that's a real surprise considering the inauspicious beginnings of t-shirts as underwear never meant to be seen in public. How did t-shirts become an undisputed icon of fashion and daily clothing choice?

Late in the 19th century, one piece (onesie) underwear was ingeniously cut into 2 and voila, the t-shirt came into being. T-shirts quickly became the go-to standard for labourers, field workers, miners and anyone looking for a layer of clothing to wick sweat away. The white t-shirt was officially adopted by the US Navy to be worn in place of formal, restrictive and hard to clean uniforms.


An iconic photo of a US Sailor in a white T-shirt. Photo credit and copyright LIFE magazine


Throughout the depression era of the 1920's and 30's t-shirts became the minimal dress code for young boys and working men, cheap to buy at less than 25 cents each, easy to clean and required to cover the torso for reasons of modesty.

As World War 2 dawned the world's economy evolved towards mass production, the t-shirt was a practical and easy to produce shirt that soon became part of the uniform of every branch of the military.

It is believed the very first printed graphic t-shirt was produced for the United States Air Corps in 1942 and was most likely silk screened. Graphic T's became a key morale booster and coveted team building item within military units with each branch and unit working to outdo the other.

While mass printing t-shirts would not really take off until the 1950's the military was first to prove the popularity of the graphic t-shirt.


WW2 Graphic T-shirt
WW2 Graphic T-shirt

The first known printed T-shirts appeared in 1942, examples from the US Air Corps Gunnery School. US Navy Seabees WW2 graphic t-shirt. Photo credit and copyright LIFE Magazine.


Post-war optimism and an unprecedented economic boom brought prosperity like nothing seen before. Disposable income, modern advertising and a movie culture, with finely honed messaging skills learned during the war years made it easier to establish fashion ideals.

Returning war veterans often wore their military issue t-shirts and uniform pants as casual wear, unwittingly setting a fashion trend soon to be copied in movies and print ads. With literally tons of surplus military clothing flooding the market the t-shirt became more than an affordable and attainable look, movie stars, matinee idols and advertising made t-shirts the epitome of cool.


James Dean in a basic white T on the set of

James Dean in a basic white T on the set of "Rebel Without A Cause".


Who can forget the style defining photo of a James Dean in a basic white T? The photo may well have launched a billion dollar fashion movement. The next phase, commercial graphic t-shirt printing, can be traced to the early 1950's, with several print shops betting the trend of printed shirts seen during the war years would pay off with logo t-shirts. Triumph Motorcycles garnered instant top of mind brand awareness with this photo of Steve McQueen, setting the standard of cool, riding a Bonneville Model One handed with the company logo emblazoned on his t-shirt.


What is more stylish than STEVE MCQUEEN riding this Triumph motorcycle one handed?

What is more stylish than Steve McQueen riding this Triumph motorcycle one handed?


Companies soon embraced the opportunity to have people pay to wear their brands and logos. Walt Disney ensured Mickey Mouse shirts became must have souvenirs that in turn became living, walking advertisements. The 1960's saw the t-shirt evolve with the introduction of the ringer t-shirt where the collar and sleeve ribbing were made of a contrasting colour. Ringer t's became a staple of youth fashion in the 60's and 70's with t-shirts emerging as art mediums for self expression, advertising, souvenir shirts, and soon to follow protest statements.


John Lennon in a New York City cut off Ringer T.

John Lennon in a New York City cut off Ringer T.

Rare Original Rolling Stones Lips and Tongue T-shirt.

Rare Original Rolling Stones Lips and Tongue T-shirt.

Very Rare Original Woodstock Concert T-shirt.

Very Rare Original Woodstock Concert T-shirt.


Musicians and bands fuelled the t-shirt frenzy with band and concert shirts becoming a status symbol, telling the world your musical and in many cases the shared political leanings of the artists. Somewhat ironically t-shirts bearing the face of Marxist Che Guevara became a symbol of resistance to capitalist ideals.

Activism and t-shirts go hand in glove, from hippies wearing peace t-shirts in the 60's to Black Lives Matter activists today, t-shirts are the medium for the message in the modern world. Whether you're rockin' a plain white T like James Dean or Steve McQueen or telling the world where you stand with a slogan, t-shirts have never been in more demand or more popular. From thrift shops and rock shops to Rodeo Drive, t-shirts are the undisputed champion of fashion for dressing up, dressing down, clowning around or standing for a cause.


Frankie Goes To Hollywood, War T-shirt.

WHAM Choose Life T-shirt worn by George Michael.

WHAM Choose Life T-shirt worn by George Michael.


AIDS activists from ACT UP made their presence loud and clear.

Black Lives Matter t-shirts are as polarizing as the issue of racism


Billionaire Jay Z wearing a Che Guevera T-shirt. The irony is real!

Billionaire Jay Z wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt. The irony is real!

Shepard Fairey's 2008 Obama ‘Hope’ artwork T-shirt.

Shepard Fairey's 2008 Obama ‘Hope’ artwork t-shirt.


The emergence of the t-shirt as a fashion staple has transformed many workplaces from stuffy to casual. Plan on dropping a cool grand on an iPhone X and you'll be making the transaction with an employee in an Apple logo tee. Many of the worlds most profitable and advanced companies have dress codes that encourage self-expression through casual dress codes with t-shirts encouraged!



Apple store employees in Logo Tees.

Apple store employees in Logo Tees.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, one of the world's richest men prefers T-shirts over ties.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, one of the world's richest men prefers t-shirts over ties.


T-shirts have come a very long way in a hundred years, from unmentionable to an undisputed fashion staple. Can you imagine the reaction of a depression era survivor, hard-pressed to scrape up a quarter for a t-shirt being asked to fork over a grand for a Gucci Black Tiger Logo t-shirt in 2017?


Gucci Black Tiger Logo T-Shirt $1000 - Copyright GUCCI

Gucci Black Tiger Logo T-Shirt $1000 - Copyright GUCCI


I can image the reaction would probably go something like this?

I can image the reaction would probably go something like this?


If you're not in the market to drop a G on a Gucci T check out Clubcard's custom t-shirt printing starting at under 20 bucks. Clubcard has been in the printing business for 23 years and has the know how to print the perfect t-shirt for you, from company logo shirts for the whole staff to team and event shirts or party shirts for your stag and bachelorette parties.

Your custom printed t-shirts are produced in-house with the same high level of quality offered on all our printed products. From single t-shirt printing to shirts for the whole crew, whatever you have in mind, we've got your back - or at least the shirt on it.


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