Boys’ T-Shirts – How They Began

It may surprise some of you to realise that the T-shirt started life as a humble men’s undergarment in Britain as opposed to America. When the industrial revolution in England used the first cotton mill around 1733 few could have seen the impact such inventions of the day would bring to society, including revolutionising fashion and the garments we wear today. In the late 19th century the american flag shirts was a close cousin of the vest or singlet that was worn as an undergarment by men in England. Despite America being a major supplier of cotton they had stuck with traditional woollen undergarments until they discovered, sometime after WWI, that the cotton T-shirt worn by the English was a much more comfortable garment. The Americans, as the Australians, are renowned for naming things simply and so the garment, because of its shape was called a T-shirt with the word entering the dictionary by the 1920s.

As media coverage in items featured in Pathe News films hit the cinemas and photography in magazines became of better quality and increased in circulation, once movie stars like James Dean and Elvis Presley, pin-ups of their time, were captured wearing T-shirts their popularity increased. Some older people still thought the garment should be restricted to the privacy of the bathroom or the bedroom and that it was rude and immodest to wear such an item as an outer garment. Those who did were viewed as rebellious and disrespectful of authority. The T-shirt became synonymous with youthful revolution and making a statement, an attitude that was prevalent up until the late 1960s when teenagers were finally recognised as belonging to a separate subculture with their own dress sense and were not merely undersized adult clones. Boys’ T-shirts were born.

As T-shirts made their way to becoming acceptable outer garments they changed from being plain and insignificant to fashion items that were a means of easy decoration due to the discovery of plastisol [suspension convertible into solid plastic: a suspension of synthetic resin particles convertible by heat into solid plastic] that allowed an ink of high durability and capacity to stretch and therefore print on T-shirts with designs and patterns and graphics previously unavailable to the industry. Even the T-shirts that remained plain received treatments like tie-dye from the 1960s hippies to exaggerate and advertise their new place in the wardrobe.

T-shirts today are accepted as suitable outerwear and they often carry messages to show the wearer’s personal tastes through the designs on them. They can show affiliations with particular music genres and specific bands, sports teams or superstars admired, lifestyle choices and preferences, hobbies, interests and pastimes that might reflect their social group, political beliefs or their cultural ideals. When T-shirts have been made from environmentally responsible or organic materials they often incorporate a brand logo that is instantly recognisable or a message to convey concern about global green issues. You might have noticed sometimes that parts of a T-shirt are blurred in news reports or film footage from the USA because they might be seen as endorsements of products advertised on a T-shirt even though there is no direct association with it.


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