Josh Sims extolls the virtues of a popular garment that has gone from nautical workwear to wardrobe staple
It is, superficially at least, the simplest item in the wardrobe. It is minimalistic and yet iconic, suggestive of rebellion and youth, or perhaps that you’re just off to bed. It’s been a blank canvas for statement and for salesmanship, protest and pop culture. And for a long time it never even saw the light of day, being considered under rather than outerwear. The T-shirt, and specifically the white T-shirt, is sartorial ground zero.
Naturally, like many good things in fashion, it has its origins in a more functional setting. Indeed, some time around 1913, on the eve of the First World War, the US Navy allowed the wearing of a new, cropped-sleeve undershirt, ideal to wear during the sweaty work of ship’s maintenance, or to leave the arms free while manning the guns. White was chosen, somewhat counter-intuitively, because its readiness to show the dirt would help encourage hygiene; because it required no expensive dyeing and, well, because it went well with navy darlings. And yet, the Americans made it in wool flannelette, which took an age to dry.
Enter stage left, through a porthole perhaps, British company Sunspel, which had in the early years of the 20th century been making a similar, long-sleeved undergarment for wear in the tropical colonies. And it was made of cotton. Inevitably the two garments got it together, and in the cross pollination of smart ideas, the T-shirt as we know it was born. By the time the Second World War was looming, this hugely useful military garment was already finding its way into civilian use. ‘You needn’t be in the army to have your own personal T-shirt,’ as a Sears Roebuck ad had it.
But it was in the years after the war that the T-shirt had its heyday. Thanks to coverage of conflict in the pages of magazines such as Life, the public had grown used to seeing a garment that gloried in the buff male physique – an idea that etiquette had previously dampened down. Now the explosion of youth culture, and its portrayal by Hollywood, saw the T-shirt become symbolic of all that was new, progressive and maybe just a little bit scary. You can chart its progress in film, from 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire via The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause to 1961’s West Side Story – the T-shirt as totem of youth uprising.
It’s a combination of characteristics that, oddly, the garment has yet to give up, half a century later. The T-shirt is still a bit macho, still a bit defiant, and still totally useful.
JOSH SIMS is a journalist and author of Icons of Men’s Style