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Read information about the origin of the T-shirt.

Actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando made the T-shirt popular. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
Actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando made the T-shirt popular.

T-shirts -- so named because of their resemblance to the capital letter "T" -- have become iconic, standard wear for generations. Generally made using cotton or a cotton/polyester blend, T-shirt fabric is woven with a jersey stitch, creating a soft and durable base for the shirt. T-shirts are simple closed shirts with short sleeves, no collars and no buttons. Originally designed as simple white shirts to wear under more expensive, tailored men's shirts, T-shirts are now manufactured as outerwear, enjoying popularity world-wide as a wardrobe staple.

The Origins of the T-Shirt

The origin of the T-shirt is much debated. Some historians claim the garment has been around in form since the time of the early Egyptians, but others claim the T-shirt came on the scene much more recently, according to Mark E. Dixon's A T-Shirt History. During WWI, American soldiers and sailors wore hot wool uniforms and were impressed by the Europeans' cool cotton undershirts. By World War II, both the U.S. Navy and Army had included the T-shirt as part of the standard issue uniform. The T-shirt has never lost popularity since.

Types of T-Shirts

The early T-shirts designed for the U.S. Navy had close-fitting, round necks, which became known as "crew" necks. The crew-neck T-shirt remains popular, although other neck styles have become popular as well. The V-neck, which drops in the front to form a "V," enjoys popularity, too. Sleeve length has also vacillated; however, purists say that once the sleeve rises above the shoulder or falls below the elbow, the garment is no longer a T-shirt. Typically, T-shirts extend to the waist, but fashion has led T-shirts to be worn many different ways, from an over-large style to a midriff-bearing cropped style.

The T-Shirt Gets a Boost from Hollywood

The T-shirt remained essentially an undergarment until after World War II, when Hollywood movies brought it into the limelight. Marlon Brando and James Dean helped T-shirts achieve superstar status when they wore them in "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1951 and "Rebel without a Cause" in 1955, respectively. Even then, though, the T-shirt remained plain and white.

Coloring and Printing

Since the 1950s, T-shirts have evolved into a form of self-expression. In the 1960s, advances in screen-printing produced a way for artists to bring individual messages or mass-market creative designs to the T-shirt, and people began wearing shirts with iconic symbols and political slogans. Tie-dyeing and airbrushing also became popular ways for people to make their T-shirts unique.

T-Shirts Become Big Business

With the advent of effective printing methods, T-shirts became a form of advertising and a booming business. Rock bands began selling T-shirts with their names on them at concerts, and some of those shirts have become collectors' items today. Printed T-shirts also quickly found a niche as souvenirs from vacation spots and popular tourist stops.

Today, printing methods are joined with the Internet, allowing T-shirt fans to upload custom designs for printing -- or to sell to other users.

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