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A brief history of the modern-day wardrobe staple, worn everywhere by everyone, the plain white T-shirt.

Remember the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Amanda Priestly (Meryl Streep) gives Andy (Anne Hathaway) a brief, icily delivered history lesson on the colour cerulean?

“It's actually cerulean.”

Well, we have a similar aim with this article except hopefully using a decidedly warmer, less condescending tone. Join us for a homage to a cultural icon, the plain white T-shirt.

Humble beginnings

T-shirts, as the name would suggest, are named after their distinctive “T” shape. The term was first coined by the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel This Side of Paradise, published in 1920.

“So early in September Amory, provided with ‘six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T-shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc,’ set out for New England, the land of schools.”

But T-shirts actually date back to medieval times, when they were worn as undergarments to protect the skin from coarser outer layers. During this period, they were made from silk, linen or wool, and tied together at the front and back.

Later, manual workers in the 19th century would cut up their 'union suits', a mass produced underlayer made from cotton—think onesie— in the hotter summer months. Cottoning on to the idea (no pun intended), in the early 20th century T-shirts similar to those we we know today were first marketed as “bachelor undershirts” by a company called Cooper Underwear Company.

merchant sailor

A merchant sailor keeping cool

In 1913, the US Navy began issuing the classic white, crew-neck, short sleeve silhouette as undergarments for sailors. However, in hotter climates and submarines, it was common for them to be worn as they are today, which paved the way for their use as an outer-layer.

Inexpensive, comfortable, and practical it wasn’t long before the white T-shirt was adopted by workers all over America, as well as sportsmen and energetic young boys. They could even double as towels.

A Great Depression and another World War later, T-shirts started to be worn more and more casually.

The making of a cultural icon

Already something of a cultural icon for writers like Fitzgerald, the real breakthrough for the plain white T-shirt came in the early 1950s when the young Godfather, Marlon Brando, wore one in the movie adaptation of Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. Shortly after, James Dean carried the look further in the iconic coming-of-age movie Rebel Without A Cause. 

This was the era of popular, youth and counter cultures when young people started to reject the cultural norms imposed on them by older generations. The plain white T became an icon of this period, of rebellion and self-expression, popularised by figures like Brando and Dean. 

man in white t shirt and jeans

A look that took off in the '50s and still works!

Since then, the humble plain white T has been adopted by numerous subcultures and risen up to realms of high fashion. 

Modern-day ubiquity

Like with Andy’s cerulean jumper, the white T-shirt eventually made its way from the backs of movie stars, beatniks and hipsters to those of everyday men and women from all walks of life who just want to throw something on that looks good without thinking about it too much. 

But it still hasn’t lost its cool. All-white T-shirts still appear regularly on catwalks and in music videos. Hip hop artists, arguably the Brandos and Deans of today, like to wear them super baggy, or “tall”.

It’s now possible to choose from a wide assortment of collars, fits and fabrics, further increasing the versatility of the garment as a wardrobe essential. 

woman white t-shirt

What to look for in a plain white T-shirt

Not all plain white T’s are created equal. The cut, quality of the fabric, and how it’s manufactured greatly impacts a T-shirt’s comfort, longevity, and how good it looks.

Unfortunately, the market for cheap, low quality, mass-produced T-shirts (and clothing in general) is massive. Not only are these garments costlier in the long run, as generally they will only last a few washes before needing to be replaced, but this kind of consumerism is also damaging the planet. 

On average, it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce a single T-shirt. This means that, globally, fashion is a problematic consumer of this precious natural resource.

The fashion industry is also a huge carbon emitter, contributing to somewhere between 4% and 10% of global CO2 emissions.

Equally concerning is the treatment of workers who make such garments, often terribly paid and subject to awful working conditions, and also other forms of pollution. We think you'll agree this gives the plain white T a more unattractive look.

But it doesn't have to be like that.

Investing a little more into your T-shirt purchase will not only save money in the long run, it also means a better fit, greater comfort, and proper treatment of workers and the planet.

Things to look out for in this regard:

  • Sustainable materials e.g. organic cotton, recycled cotton, Tencel
  • Transparency from brands concerning the treatment of workers across the supply chain
  • Recycling or 'circularity' programmes that enable you to trade in a garment to be reused.

Beyond that, the fit and how you wear it is up to you. It will always be a classic.

 

 

A Good Company plain white T-Shirt
A Good Company's plain white T-shirt, a classic already.