How the t-shirt went from underwear to everywhere

If you had to name an item of clothing that came to define the 20th century, the t-shirt would be top of the pile. Evolving from the long-john underwear of the 1800s, it was first popularised by Wisconsin-based Cooper Underwear Company in 1904 as a 'bachelor undershirt'.

What set the t-shirt apart from previous underwear was that it could be pulled over the head, negating the need for buttons and giving rise to its alternative name; the pullover. It wasn't long before the t-shirt was the standard issue to be worn under a sailor's uniform for the US Navy.

It would be some time before t-shirts were seen as anything but an undergarment, and wearing them with nothing over the top would be akin to venturing down to the shops in your Y-fronts.

Pop culture kings

The actual word t-shirt started to be used from the early 1920s and it was actually The Great Gatsby's F. Scott Fitzgerald who first used the term 't-shirt' in print when one of his characters is described as owning one in the novel, This Side of Paradise.

Gradually t-shirts ceased to be undergarments and became a handy item of clothing, favoured by the working class. A 25-year-old Marlon Brando elevated the humble t-shirt to iconic status in the 1951 film, A Streetcar Named Desire.

The best way to look like Marlon Brando in a T-shirt is to look like him out of a T-shirt.

George Hahn

Brando's white tee was the model by which all t-shirts to come should be measured: 100 per cent cotton jersey, form fitted but not skin tight, a thin collar band, no logos, or silly messages, and with a sleeve that hit mid-bicep. Perfection.

Heartthrob James Dean was the other Hollywood star who led to a veritable t-shirt craze, wearing a white one under a red jacket in the 1955 classic, Rebel Without a Cause. In 2012 the t-shirt sold at auction for US$6000 ($7874).

Plain sailing

New York style blogger George Hahn says every man should have a few solid white t-shirts in his wardrobe to team with jeans, chinos and shorts. "Apart from white, the best alternate colours depend on the skin, hair and eye colour of the wearer, as well as the other colours being worn," says Hahn.

"The best t-shirt is plain and solid. By no means should anyone wear a t-shirt advertising a brand or a label without being paid to do so.


"All this said, the t-shirt is generally a better friend to those with a fitter physique. The best way to look like Marlon Brando in a t-shirt is to look like him out of a t-shirt."

Check out our gallery for some the most luxurious classic T-shirts that money can buy.