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The T-shirt started modestly as 19th-century underwear; today, it’s a pervasive semiotic mode. How did a humble undergarment become a tool of countercultural protest, and later, an icon of Western consumerism?

Image: 'HrodebertRobertus', Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Image: ‘HrodebertRobertus’, Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

T-shirts were spun from modest beginnings as 19th-century underwear, but today they’re a pervasive semiotic mode. Their messages speak to sex, politics, culture and class. Their wearability (and disposability) transcends gender, age and race. They may even be the world’s most ubiquitous form of visual art. So how did the go-to undergarment of farmer and soldier become a tool of countercultural protest, and an icon of Western consumerism?

It all started back in the Wild West. Picture an old-timey, American frontier onesie – the kind with the butt flap, like Marty McFly wears in Back to the Future Part III (1990). One day, in the mid-1800s, a miner or dockworker (details are sketchy) cut one such union suit through the torso and threw away the legs. In doing so, a crude precursor to the T-shirt was invented.

By 1913, the US Navy was issuing personnel with crew-necked, short-sleeved versions of such underclothes. These comfortable, washable, cheap pieces – nowadays known as the ‘plain white tee’ – quickly gained favour with labourers across America, particularly during the Great Depression.

In the 1940s, World War II servicemen began repurposing their cotton undershirts as casual outerwear. A GI even made the cover of Life magazine in July 1942, repping his Air Corps Las Vegas Gunnery School T-shirt. This is one of the earliest printed tees seen in popular culture, predated only by those featured in The Wizard of Oz (1939). While the popularity of graphic tees would surge in the 1950s – in line with the Big Bang of teen culture – their sway over social structures dates back to circa 800 B.C.

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Like the heraldic, tribal and religious symbols on ancient Greek and Roman armour, T-shirts help humans navigate the risky business of making friends and enemies. Slapped with a slogan, your T-shirt is the quickest way to tell the world who you are and what you ♥ – New York, Che Guevara, Hooters, Harleys, Mickey Mouse, rock music. (Just don’t wear a band T-shirt to that same band’s show, y’know?)

Like heraldic, tribal and religious symbols, T-shirts help humans navigate the risky business of making friends and enemies.

In this way, T-shirts are a portable, passive, omnipresent means of self-expression. Their capacity to communicate core values was first capitalised on in the 1960s. The 50s kids who’d lived in Davy Crockett tees (likely made by Miami company Tropix Togs, the first licensee to print Disney characters and, by extension, money) had, by the Summer of Love, outgrown Uncle Walt’s aesthetic. Now young adults, they had started experimenting with tie-dyeing, peace signs and protest slogans, among other things, which meant T-shirts became a wearable canvas as well as billboard.

Californian design group The Monster Company was one of the first to make T-shirt design a high art, so to speak. Their silk-screened insignia referenced weed appreciation and The Grateful Dead – two prominent trends in 1960s California. The simultaneous rise of surf culture also proved a profitable niche for T-shirt production. Burgeoning West Coast brands like Golden Breed stamped their logos on tees, which were snapped up by beachgoers eager to identify as carefree, non-square cool dudes.

At the same time, Los Angeles ad man turned psychedelic artist Warren Dayton started crafting T-shirt graphics that merged pop culture with politics. One of Dayton’s most popular designs featured César Chávez, a civil rights activist and co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association. This was befitting given that farmers were among the T-shirt’s earliest adopters. It also foreshadowed one of history’s most iconic, not to mention ironic, T-shirt designs: the high-contrast face of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.

Based on Alberto Korda’s 1960 photograph Guerrillero Heroico, the simple yet enduring portrait of Guevara was designed by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick. The work was a response to Guevara’s capture and execution in 1968. It’s not clear when the Argentine military strategist first appeared on a T-shirt, but by the early 21st century the image was ubiquitous.

Worn by culturally woke students and fad-savvy shoppers alike, a ‘Che Chic’ tee seemed edgy and stylish to some, but tactless and embarrassing to others. While some wearers sought to convey their own rebellious nature – just as hippies, surfers and Dead Heads had done in the 1960s – many buyers were unaware of the antidemocratic leader’s terrorist tendencies. In either case, wearers seemed oblivious to the irony of paying to display a socialist’s face, on a T-shirt likely made by exploited workers in underdeveloped countries.

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The printed T-shirt embodies a laundry list of conflicting ideals. It can help you find your tribe (‘Kiss me, I’m Irish!’) or make you the butt of a joke (‘I’m with stupid →’). It indicates what you stand for (‘This is what a feminist looks like’) and what you sit for (‘Frankie Say Relax’). It’s prime real estate for advertising (‘Nike: just do it’), political discourse (‘Choose Life’) and striking imagery (🙂 – an antecedent to the emoji?). Whether you want it to or not, your T-shirt inherently represents your resources.

Whether you want it to or not, your T-shirt inherently represents your resources.

‘America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest,’ Andy Warhol said of Coca-Cola (a company that produces a ludicrous number of tie-in T-shirts for a beverage maker). While the sentiment may not apply to graphic tees, it does hold water (no wet T-shirt pun intended) with their unadorned cousins.

From Hollywood to Inglewood, plain white tees have been levelling economic and sartorial playing fields since 1951. That’s largely thanks to Marlon Brando, who donned a certain tighty-whitie that year in A Streetcar Named Desire. Like its downstairs equivalent, the white T-shirt was still considered underwear by most wholesome folks of the day. But Brando, along with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), popularised it as a wardrobe staple.

Devoid of symbology and slogans, white T-shirts remain understated, inscrutable and effortlessly cool. Unlike Tropix Togs’ cartoon heroes, and The Monster Company’s psychedelic designs, a white tee is a blank canvas. That makes it an ideal screen for receiving teen fantasies – a trick known to Brando, Dean, Ferris Bueller, Bruce Springsteen, Brigitte Bardot, Britney Spears and countless boy bands. Consequently, white T-shirts have earned a permanent spot on pop culture’s washing line.

Devoid of symbology and slogans, white T-shirts remain understated, inscrutable and effortlessly cool.

In 2004, they also left a scent on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart when ‘White Tee’ by Dem Franchize Boyz peaked at #79. The track espouses the functionality, affordability and flair of a plain white tee – particularly the size XXXXL ‘tall tee’ trend of hip hop culture – as worn by the Boyz in the single’s music video. It’s a paean to the T-shirt’s power to rise above wider society’s arbitrary restrictions:

White tees in the club while we drinking on Bacardi
Fuck throwbacks, white tees in party
Now don’t get me started, gotta try record it
Bullshit we avoid it
Everyone wear white tees cause they can afford it

Despite, or perhaps because of, the song’s message to form a community based on matching clothing (as well as selling drugs), some listeners considered it a call-to-arms for gang culture. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2006, white T-shirts were banned in some schools, clubs and other American institutions due to their perceived association with criminality. Since then, the tall tee has gone the way of most trends initiated within diverse racial communities: commoditised by mainstream culture.

This flavour of appropriation imbues the case of Three Wolf Moon: a T-shirt design that went viral in 2009 care of sassy internet commenter Brian Govern. His facetious Amazon review spoke to the alleged magical properties of a tee that features three grey wolves howling at a full moon. Designed by animal illustrator Antonia Neshev for online store The Mountain, its visual style takes cues from Native American iconography, or the approximation made popular by dream-catchers in bong stores of the 1990s.

Neshev says her designs embrace ‘the spirituality of [the] American wilderness,’ and it’s this divine mysticism that Govern, and a glut of posters in his stead, leverage in their gag reviews. The Three Wolf Moon tee is said to have healing and aphrodisiac properties. The owner will likely become the alpha of their community. It may even cause the wearer to shape-shift into a wolf – their ‘spirit animal’ – depicted here in triplicate, and eligible for same-day shipping if you order before noon.

June 21 was International T-Shirt Day: a time to ‘give thanks to fashion’s most versatile top.’ It’s also worth noting the interwoven histories of symbolism, sex and sales that account for the garment’s now iconic status.

Sidebar T-shirt images via Moteefe.com.