It’s the summer of the T-shirt at Alabama Chanin. Next Tuesday, we’re launching The Clean Tee program from our Bldg. 14 manufacturing facility. Later in the summer, we’ll introduce one-of-a-kind “graffiti tees”—each hand sewn and uniquely stenciled. Today, to kick off the summer of the T-shirt, we share inspiration and insight about the T-shirt from The T-Shirt Book, which chronicles the origins of the T-Shirt as a garment and a medium for creative expression over the decades.
“Work of art, political mouthpiece, advertising billboard, fashion fetish, in less than 50 years the T-shirt has become a kind of textile chameleon. There are times when its multifaceted personality disguises what it really and truly is—a simple item of clothing or, more accurately, underclothing.” Charlotte Brunel writes this in The T-Shirt Book, her ode to what is arguably fashion’s most diverse offering. The T-shirt is a comfortable staple of our wardrobe and is capable of reflecting of-the-moment culture and of telling you important things about the wearer – from their political beliefs to their favorite brands to key elements of their sense of humor. Versions of the T-shirt itself can be trendy, but the garment itself is a timeless staple in modern culture.
In her 400-page book, Brunel traces the history of the T-shirt from its humble beginnings as a military undergarment to the modern cultural touchpoint it has become. The T-shirt (whose name was coined for the shirt’s resemblance to the letter “T”) got its start as an alternative to itchy undershirts worn by soldiers, and by World War II had become standard-issue military garb. But it took time after the war’s end for the T-shirt to become acceptable to wear as anything but underwear. “After the war, the T-shirt became emblematic of a victorious America,” Brunel wrote. “This intimate fabric of heroes, which so faithfully served the national cause, clearly earned its status as something above and beyond a mere undergarment. In the puritanical and conformist America of the 1950s, showing your T-shirt outside the privacy of your own home, or anywhere other than in stadiums, was still considered bad taste.”
But by the 1960s, the T-shirt earned iconic status through pop culture references, appearing prominently on James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” and Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The working class garment was crossing over into everyday wear. During the 60s, women also adopted the shirt as a casual garment, led by Jean Seberg in the Jean-Luc Godard film “Breathless.” With every decade, the T-shirt gained a wider foothold in American culture. T-shirts became reflections of the times, woven into our history as a means of personal style or social expression.
The 1960s and 70s brought greater customization to the garment, with tie-dye, pen and magic marker, even punk rock-style rips and safety pins. By the 1980s, T-shirts became commercialized by brands wanting exposure and by designers who sought to add luxury and cachet to the utilitarian piece. Corporate America found an inexpensive way to advertise to consumers. High-end designers often went in the opposite direction, making limited-run couture T-shirts that would be available to a select few. Today T-shirts can act as identifiers, allowing individuals to find like-minded political allies, fellow college alumni, fans of their favorite band, or can be seen as items that denote status – as with shirts made by specific designers or desirable high-end or trendy brands. The T-shirt is more versatile than ever and can be worn to the gym or dressed up for more formal events. Above all, the T-shirt has retained qualities it has possessed since its early days – comfort and functionality.
The T-Shirt Book is currently out of print but can usually be found on Amazon or in used bookstores. If you happen upon a copy, we recommend grabbing it – if for no other reason than to look at the wide array of photographs representing the T-shirt’s history.
P.S.: Check back next Tuesday when we introduce The Clean Tee.