Fashion History: 100 Years of the Tee Shirt

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2013 is the official/unofficial 100th anniversary of the modern tee shirt, and during that century of progress the tee seems to have never ceased to grab our attention.  Tank top, baby doll, crop top, wife beater, tie dye… whatever you call them and whichever flavor floats your v- neck boat, there is one undeniable fact: the tee shirt is everywhere.  Practical, comfortable, and highly-customizable, tees seem to fit everyone’s lifestyle – to the tune of two billion of them sold worldwide every year.

The humble origins of the tee shirt are not entirely clear, but we prefer the homespun legend involving the union suit (those red one-piece long johns).  Rumor has it that in the late 1800s, people began cutting their one-piece undergarments into separates of long underwear bottoms and long-sleeved shirts. Cut the arms short for summer comfort and… voila! The tee shirt was born.

The military were early adopters of the new shirt design, making tees regulation undergarments by 1913. Not long after, they were commissioned by University of Southern California for football players who needed something lightweight but sweat-absorbing to wear under uniforms. These were so coveted by students on campus that the administration began stamping “Property of USC” on them to prevent theft. In the process, they created a Collegiate fashion trend that continues to this very day.

Tee shirts became the de facto uniform of the American rural working class, and was standard Army and Navy issue during World War II. Post-war American youth culture carried on the tee tradition.  Silver-screen rebels such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, and movies like West Side Story turned the white tee into an icon to be admired, respected and feared.

Flash forward ten years and tees had begun evolving from plain vanilla crew necks to a variety of shapes and colors.  Screen printing allowed mass production of shirts with logos and slogans.  Tie dye opened a whole new rainbow of colors and options.  We saw the birth of the smiley face, Che Guevarra shirts, company logos and more. Rebels still wore tees, but now they were on stage with rock stars and activists. And all in all… it was a good time to be a tee shirt.

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It could be argued that the average American IQ dropped a few points when tees with slogans like “I’m with Stupid” and “My Parents went to Vegas and all I got was this Lousy Tee Shirt” became popular fashion statements.  But the 80’s saw so much more that that, and re-invention with crop tops, Day-Glo neon and oversized tees worn over-the-shoulder, to slashed-up punk rock tees and anti-drug propaganda like D.A.R.E.

Today’s’ cutting edge tees seem more like a blast-from the past than progressive new ideas, revisiting old trends and adding new twists: floral patterns, metal studs and ombre color fades.  What goes around definitely comes around again, and we look forward to seeing the next step in tee shirt evolution