From James Dean to The Beatles, the t-shirt has been a symbol of rebellion and coolness. It’s gone through infinite style updates — from tie-dye to emojis — and is now considered a classic wardrobe staple. But how did it become so iconic?

We’ve dug up the surprising origins of this versatile item, including how it became one of the most popular pieces of clothing in the world.

Why Has the T-Shirt Become So Iconic?

The simple T-shirt has become a staple of modern life. You can find it in just about every wardrobe around the world and worn by people of all ages, cultures, and social classes. And here’s why:

It fits everyone

The beauty of the T-shirt tops is that it fits everyone – again reinforcing their versatility as an item of clothing. Men and women

It’s the most democratic garment ever invented. Simple, cheap, and ubiquitous, it’s worn by everyone from presidents to punks. It’s a blank canvas for self-expression and a political battleground. And it started life as humble underwear.

It’s comfortable

When you’re relaxing or need to wear something that allows you freedom of movement, a T-shirt will rarely disappoint. It’s an easy garment to throw on when you want something comfortable, which is why you’ll often catch people wearing them when they’re at home or on holiday.

It’s versatile

Like most clothes, there are different styles of T-shirts that are more suited for certain occasions than others. Although casual wear comprises the majority of T-shirts (and their popularity), there is also a market for smart casual shirts suitable for wearing at work or formal events. 

It’s Beautiful

The T-shirt is more than just a thing of beauty; it has become a comfy second skin, an essential part of our wardrobes, a blank canvas for self-expression and protest, an icon, and perhaps even an item that helps to define us. It’s also the only garment that is timeless enough to be worn by everyone from presidents to punks.

evolution of a t-shirt

evolution of a t-shirt

The Evolution of the T-shirt

T-shirts were created as underwear in the early 1900s and only became a wardrobe staple during the Second World War. Army uniforms were too hot and restrictive, so soldiers would often cut off their T-shirt sleeves and wear them under their uniforms. This was especially useful under hot summer conditions.

In 1913, the U.S. Navy asked Cooper Underwear Co. to create a garment to be worn under sailors’ uniforms, which were often made of wool, making them extremely hot and uncomfortable in warmer months.

The first true T-shirts were made of cotton jerseys and had high round necks that looked more like modern tank tops. The original name was the “bachelor undershirt.” It wasn’t until the 1940s that they began being referred to as “T-shirts.”

At the end of the war, soldiers came back to America wearing their new “uniform”, which caught on rapidly with civilians. The popular image of James Dean wearing a white T-shirt helped to cement its popularity with young people. 

The brand Marlon Brando wore in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) was not one that could be bought by consumers at the time, but it did create an image for men to aspire to: namely, a cool kind of masculinity that didn’t depend on fancy clothes or wealth. This led to an explosion in cheap clothing brands aimed at working men who wanted to emulate Brando.

When the t-shirt Started becoming An Iconic Piece

The T-shirt has a long, interesting history. A few years ago, the T-shirt was more than just an undergarment; it’s a political statement, an art canvas, and a mainstream fashion staple. 

The history of this humble item of clothing is fascinating. Turning up in historical texts dating back to ancient Rome, the T-shirt stayed out of the spotlight for centuries until it was finally thrust into the public consciousness by Hollywood in the 1950s. Since then, it has gone on to make its mark on everything from high fashion to politics.

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Danor Aliz is a lifestyle journalist who enjoys writing about everything luxury. Her favorite subjects are luxury travel and everything that has to do with fashion. In her spare time, she loves to paint and also enjoys her time walking her dog Daisy.