Master Class: The History of the White Tee
Ribbed-collar. Short-sleeves. Slim-fit. The makings of our favorite essential are fairly straightforward and our devotion to it well understood. The t-shirt is a universal item, often associated with leisure, despite its origins as the working man’s uniform. And while it may seem that the t-shirt does not take itself too seriously, its role in fashion history is nevertheless integral. The white tee is undoubtedly the great equalizer. No other item links social, political, and cultural touchpoints as plainly as the t-shirt. Its lineage has traversed lines of what is considered socially acceptable and has shifted dramatically from its humble beginnings. Widely recognized as a menswear staple in its infancy, the t-shirt is now positioned as a unisex piece beloved across the board.
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The proliferation of the t-shirt is largely tied to its roots as uniform wear and made its first appearance as an undergarment for sailors. The earliest example of this style dates back to the 18th century in the form of a long undershirt that tied between the legs, resembling a onesie. This design led to the creation of the one-piece union suit and two-piece wool underwear sets supplied to soldiers during the American Civil War; the U.S. Navy mandated a similar uniform to be worn as outerwear. Born out of the popularity of the tank-style swimsuit in the late 1800s, the undershirt became a form of male intimates that were acceptable to wear on their own in public.
Cotton also factors greatly into the tee’s story. The 1800s saw the natural resource ascend to the most lucrative agricultural crop in America. Its universal durability, softness, and absorbant properties made it a welcomed alternative to boiled wool. In her book The White T, author Alice Harris recognizes the acceleration of the resource’s production through the invention of the cotton gin. “[The machine] had the perverse effect of making cotton a huge cash crop- and slavery even more common,” she asserts. New advancements in technology allowed American manufacturers like Hanes, Velva Sheen, and Sears & Roebuck to fulfill the country’s appetite for cotton basics through mass production; contrasting the styles’ simplicity with the grueling process it took to make them. World War II provided another turning point as servicemen grappled with intense climate conditions; the Navy adapted by sending official specs to manufacturers during this time that detailed a new shirt style: the crewneck t-shirt. As the war ended, servicemen returned home and continued to wear these uniform shirts as casual wear.
The 50s marked a key change in the social view of the t-shirt; more specifically, it was a pivotal moment that defined the tee’s transition to outerwear. The nation’s collective desire for a more familial structure following the war fueled the development of major highways and suburban communities, allowing a growing segment of the younger generation to live a life of relative comfort; it differentiated teenagers from their parents in a way that had not been seen before. While easy to clean fabrications made the t-shirt an appealing option for the entire family, films of the era depicted the basic tee as rebellious and a symbol of rugged masculinity. Marlon Brando’s performances in the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire and the 1953 biker story The Wild One elevated its status in the eyes of youth. A similar effect was had by James Dean is his breakout role as sullen teenager Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. The attention that surrounded Brando and Dean following their parts shed light on the tee as a choice of style, not simply a layer beneath dress shirts, and underscored feelings of angst. Its turn as a fashion item was also encouraged by the rise of subcultures growing in the US. Beatniks, bikers, and other groups that separated themselves from the mainstream wore t-shirts in defiance, with the intellectual “beats” standing firm in their opposition to the decade’s growing consumerism. Writer Maisie Skidmore described it as, “a self-contradicting distaste for worrying about how one looks.” Ironically, their anti-fashion stance remains a desirable pursuit.
Despite its proclivity towards a certain masculine ideal, the t-shirt’s acceptance in womenswear is well-documented. Model Rene Perle favored black and white ribbed knit tank versions with daring wide leg trousers in the 30s, while actress Jean Seberg’s turn in Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless is punctuated by her shirt’s ode to a now-discontinued newspaper. The film became an icon of French new wave cinema, an innovative style birthed from an exhaustive knowledge of art pictures that included some mainstream, Hollywood stories. It also pivoted Seberg, a small-town American girl, into an international sensation. Her role as an aspiring journalist spawned a way of dress that mirrored the effect of the film’s genre: common interpretation of “French-style” actually held threads of American taste, the nondescript t-shirt being a chic example. As American royalty, the Kennedy family’s acceptance of the unassuming garment was also impactful, particularly in the sartorial influence of former first lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her late daughter-in-law Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. There was a noticeable shift in Jackie O’s attire following her time in the white house- plain tees produced a more relaxed demeanor compared to the pageantry she became famous for during her husband’s presidency. Bessette-Kennedy championed a similar nonchalance. Her own take adhered to a code of quiet sophistication, certainly an appeal in her role as the publicist at Calvin Klein, the bastion of modern minimalism. For both women, wearing t-shirts stood in contrast to the stifling effect of being scrutinized on a near-daily basis. Regardless of what was said or written about them, their respective images were theirs to manage and each woman chose to present what appeared to be their most natural selves.
Music and politics furthered the saga of the tee as the 60s proved fertile ground for civil revolution on all fronts. Artists wrote and performed the soundtrack to the times, with passionate youth spurring on the likes of Jimi Hendricks, Janis Joplin, and the Beatles; widespread pandemonium ensued. The excitement surrounding rock and pop music transformed the role of the t-shirt into a base for one’s personal convictions to literally be worn on their sleeves. Bands picked up on the trend of their fans crafting homemade shirts and began offering their own official versions during performances. It proved to be both a profitable transaction and a stellar marketing tool in the 70s. For some, sales of branded merchandise surpassed tour tickets. Clever graphics and screen printing techniques offered the white tee a new life, as it became a blank slate on which was heaped belief and allegiance. These relics of the past remain in demand, as current musicians continue to find inspiration in the successful endeavor, replicating that nostalgia in their own likeness for a new generation.
While it is bold to wear one’s words, that effect is magnified depending on where and how they are worn. British designers Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett have long been proponents of the political potential of the t-shirt. Westwood and her partner Malcolm McLaren famously helped bring punk aesthetics to the mainstream, further evolving the partnership of fashion and music. McLaren served as the manager for the Sex Pistols and the duo designed collage-style graphic tees for the group splayed with radical verbiage and styled in all manners of destruction: ripped, slashed, and pinned as a literal representation. Westwood’s success in subverting the mainstream clearly made an impression on a young Hamnett. The daughter of a diplomat and a graduate of Central Saint Martins, it seems that she too was destined for a career path that merged an outspoken stance with an understanding of what plagues people. In an interview with the Guardian in 2018, Hamnett explained her affinity for t-shirts as a chosen medium: “People are the most powerful canvases – you [have to] read what’s written on a T-shirt. The slogan–three words and lettering you can read a long way off–there’s no filter which stops it. Once you’ve read it, it’s in your brain.” Her approach has certainly garnered attention, evidenced by her 1984 meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It has caught on with other labels; Jeremy Scott, Prabal Gurung, Henry Holland, and Dior have each made their own statements loud and clear.
"Clever graphics and screen printing techniques offered the white tee a new life, as it became a blank slate on which was heaped belief and allegiance."
Its political roots well maintained, in recent times the white t-shirt has also become a status symbol and point of entry for young designers venturing into the luxury fashion space. As athleisure and streetwear continue to account for a sizeable portion of luxury sales, the t-shirt’s enduring position as a wardrobe staple makes it a keen choice for personal interpretation. Designers Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen built their luxury label The Row around their pursuit of the perfect fitting t-shirt, recalling the work of 90s era Jil Sander in their experimentation with sumptuous fabrics on the humble basic. They sought to make a piece that could stand well enough on its own, distancing itself from heavy branding. It is here that the power of the t-shirt reveals itself: when something is understood, it rarely requires further endorsement. Modern deviations from the original often come by way of fit and intent. This coincides with the tee’s rich cultural history. As a civilian uniform, t-shirts were originally worn by the likes of farmers with a signature cling throughout the arms, chest, and torso; a soiled shirt evident of a long day’s work. This gritty reputation is countered by the 2000s need for the fresh white tee, where a more generously cut version was purchased in bulk and worn for all occasions. There is no limit to the events where it can be worn either, whether to paint some of the 20th century’s most important artistic works or on the red carpet at the Met Gala.
By itself, the white tee speaks volumes. In its plainness, it has been able to absorb so much of who we are within its makeup. Its ubiquity set a precedent for the way that one item can be identified with by people from virtually any background, but also how context can control its purpose. That fact is amplified when an image or slogan is sprawled across it in such a way that commands the attention of onlookers. As an emblem of social standing, the versatility of the tee runs the gamut. What once sold for a mere 24 cents is now worth upward of $10,000 for rare versions. Its essence continues to remain relevant–as the forward author for Harris’s book, Italian designer Giorgio Armani confessed, “despite the fact that some people think I am a man without vices, I am a T-shirt addict. It’s the first thing I put on in the morning and the last thing I take off at night!” Its appearance is largely expressive, sharing a range of desires: athleticism, relaxation, sensuality, anonymity. No matter where we are from, where we end up, or what we decide to do in it, the message of the white tee remains: simplicity is powerful.