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The History of the White T-Shirt

The white t-shirt is the cornerstone of style for men and women. As the easiest item to wear and pair, no modern wardrobe is complete without it. When creating our latest collection we started the journey with the iconic white tee and couldn't help taking a dive into its roots, discovering how it was transformed from a functional undergarment nobody would see, to the statement piece everyone would see.

1901 – Two-piece soldiers.⁠

The story starts with the P. Hanes Knitting Company, who launched a two-piece underwear set that was issued to soldiers during World War I. The top, as seen in this incredibly sexist ad (it was a different time) was very similar to today’s white T-Shirt.⁠


1913 – In the navy. ⁠


The U.S. Navy adopted the white T-Shirt as a lightweight replacement for heavy wool clothing, the sailors found them far more suitable to their needs, doubling up as a towel. Who knows what was wrong with navy towels.


1920 – The first literary mention.⁠

F. Scott Fitzgerald is the first author to publish the word T-Shirt in This Side of Paradise, he writes – “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.”


1920’s - The birth of the t-shirt graphic. ⁠

Sport and leisure blossomed in the US as companies began to grant workers paid leave for the first time. Sports teams favoured thin cotton shirts and began to tag T-Shirts with athletes’ names, numbers and club emblems, as seen modelled by these likely lads.


1946 - Dew-it-with-Dewey. ⁠

Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey created what is considered the first ever slogan t-shirt with his “Dew-it-with-Dewey” campaign. So significant is this T-shirt that it’s held in the Smithsonian collection – despite the T-Shirt he lost. You can still buy this Tee, but let’s be honest it’s shit.


1950 - Marlon makes it an icon. ⁠

⁠It was 1950 when the white t-shirt truly became a style icon, when Marlon Brando famously donned his in Stanley Kowalski’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Fit wasn’t he.


1955 - Hollywood style icon.

The white t-shirt’s status as a Hollywood style icon was cemented when James Dean paired a white t-shirt and bomber jacket in Rebel Without a Cause. The jacket was actually red, but that just goes to show the power of black and white photography in this achingly cool shot! Still a looker though - the t-shirt.


1955 - The medium for the message.⁠⁠

With the arrival of punk the role of the t-shirt changed forever, becoming a platform for political and protest statements. The NY Times would go on to name the T-shirt the medium for the message. Although less politically motivated, T-shirts continue to play a major cultural role, a billboard of taste and opinion, high fashion or casual wear and cross cultural. ⁠

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