A History of the Plain White Tee

From union suits to Marlon Brando, we look back on 150 years of the plain white tee.

Sears Roebuck Catalogue, 1902.

1868—1900: In 1868, one-pieces known as ‘union suits’ were introduced to New Yorkers. Initially as women’s underwear as part of the Victorian dress reform, they became popular amongst working men in the winter. As the weather heated up, the legs and sleeves were cut off, creating the first T-shirt.

US soldiers training in their standard white T-shirts.
Image via heddels.com

1900—1910: At the turn of the century, Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Cooper’s Underwear (now known as Jockey) took the bisected union suit and marketed it as a set—long johns on the bottom, undershirt on top. Cooper’s Underwear dubbed their top the ‘bachelor’s undershirt’: a buttonless, short-sleeved shirt.

The undershirt grabbed the attention of the US Navy, and Hanes began producing white cotton T-shirts for the US Marine Corps in 1901.

Muhammad Ali.
Image via Getty.

1920—1940: The tees became a standard uniform feature across the US Navy and Army, outfitting the soldiers throughout the First and Second World War. After WWII, soldiers continued to wear their white tees as casual apparel, causing its breakthrough into mainstream fashion.

At the same time, CHANEL began to popularize jersey in women’s apparel, a fabric that up until that point, was seen as a material for undergarments.

Choreographer Jerome Robbins, directing chorus members during a rehearsal of "West Side Story".
Image via Martha Swope, 1957.

1950—1970: As it was still considered an undershirt, many adults didn’t agree that it was appropriate to wear T-shirts in public. This made it the perfect symbol of youth rebellion, and stars like James Dean to Marlon Brando began to sport the T-shirt on screen, most famously in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire. Elvis Presley brought the tee to the stage, and in 1956, the rock ‘n’ roll icon created the first-ever band tee—printed, of course, on a white T-shirt.

Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951.
Image via Getty.

1980—1990: By the ‘80s, with the emergence of expressive mediums like tie-dye and printed graphics, the tee had garnered mainstream approval—from the Sex Pistols’ iconic “God Save the Queen” print, to NYC’s famous “I ❤ NY” souvenir T-shirt.

Katharine Hamnett political slogan T-shirts, 1984.
Image via Katharine Hamnett.

1990—Present: Come the ‘90s, the classic white crewneck was a wardrobe staple—and has continued to earn its place in the closet to this day.

A wise investment for the next 150 years, you could say?

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