History of the T-shirt

The History of the T-shirt

The humble t-shirt is a go-to wardrobe essential that we cannot live without. But it has had quite the history starting out as a piece of underwear and then gradually helping stars like Marlon Brando become sex symbols, before moving onto being a way to show your politics. 

The Origins of the T-shirt

The T-shirt started as an item of underwear - in the 19th Century the t-shirt was born when labourers in America cut their jumpsuits in half to cope with the summer heat. Although they were starting to be manufactured in1898, the T-shirt really made it in 1913 when it became standard issue in the US Navy’s uniform. 

Fruit of the Loom started making T-shirts in the 1910’s and this was the beginning of them being available to civilians too. But it wasn’t until slightly later that this undergarment received a name, which was first used in Scott Fitzgerald’s novel - This Side of Paradise. But at this point it is still a piece of underwear, not to be worn alone…

It wasn’t until Marlon Brando and James Dean burst onto the Hollywood scene in the 1950s, that the t-shirt became popular not only as a piece of clothing but as a sign of rebellion and masculinity.  But this was all for men, women didn’t start wearing t-shirts as something to be seen in until later in the 1960s and by the 1970s it was a truly unisex item. 

 How the T-shirt became a Fashion Item

But it wasn’t until t-shirt printing became easier and more accessible that a fashion staple was truly born in the 1970s. As it is pretty much a complete blank canvas for everything from branding, political statements and your favourite band.

In the early 1960s Plastisol ink was invented which changed the speed and cost of printing garments meaning that the blank canvas could now be easily harnessed. The best example of this might be when Katharine Hamnett wore a T-shirt with an anti-nuclear message when she met Margaret Thatcher in 1984. But it all started way before in 1948 when US Presidential Candidate Thomas E Dewey used the first-ever slogan T-shirt in his 1948 campaign ‘Dew it with Dewey’. 


By the 1990s the T-shirt had become high fashion, when in 1992 Chanel used a ribbed knit tank top with the mirrored pair of C’s logo on the front. And then eventually Sharon Stone wore a t-shirt to the Academy Awards in 1996 cementing the T-shirt as everything from a daily basic to something very fancy indeed.


The Construction of the T-shirt

Along that journey from underwear to outwear, the type of fabrics used to make a t-shirt has changed drastically. When it was manufactured as an undershirt it was made up of heavy woollen fabrics, but in the 1920s with the invention of central heating, people didn’t need such heavy undergarments and so the fabric changed again. For the US army it was going to France and seeing that their undershirts where made of a light silk or cotton which introduced the idea of other possible materials. But it was when people made T-shirts in 100% cotton jersey that everything changed, as you could really see Marlon Brando’s physicality. 

Today with the changes in jersey fabrics, t-shirts can be made of a variety of different mixes, not just 100% cotton. We are always pretty excited about a different mix and we are most excited by these Cotton and Linen jerseys….


Oatmeal cotton and linen jersey t shirt fabric

Cotton and Linen Mix Jersey Oatmeal


And for more of our top T-shirt fabric recommendations, you can also read our blog on the topic of the best fabrics for T-shirts.


The Breton Stripe

The history of the T-shirt would not be complete without mentioning the Breton Stripe top made famous by Coco Chanel. Although it has longer sleeves than the more traditional t-shirt the Breton stripe is just as much a key part of any capsule wardrobe. Originally the striped long sleeved tee was worn by French Sailors around 1858 and was meant to show the number of battles won by Napoleon but also to make it easier to see sailors who had fallen overboard. But things really changed for the Breton Stripe top after Coco Chanel saw the sailors at work and introduced them as more of a fashion item in her 1917 nautical collection. This was such a big deal at the time because it moved womenswear away from the corset and made it more casual. 

Since it’s inception the casual Breton stripe tee has been worn by such a wide variety of people from Picasso, James Dean and then in more recent years by Kate Moss and Alexa Chung, making them a permanent staple. 


Navy and Ecru Breton Stripe fabric

Organic Cotton Jersey Navy and Ecru Breton Stripe



A Capsule Wardrobe Essential 

As we are now in a situation where we need to make clothes that we can wear as often as possible, the t-shirt is a great thing to add to your capsule wardrobe. As it can be worn with so many different things, for example if you need something to go with a midi skirt for work, grab a t-shirt. Having a casual weekend at home and need something to feel comfortable and easy? Pop a t-shirt on. Want to add an extra layer of warmth to an outfit? Just add a t-shirt under your jumper. The possibilities are literally endless….

Here are some our favourite t-shirt patterns

  1. https://thefoldline.com/product/jeanne-t-shirt-dress/
  2. https://thefoldline.com/product/afra-t-shirt/
  3. https://thefoldline.com/product/primo-t-shirt/


Discover our T-shirt Fabric Collection Online


T shirt fabric collection

So if you're now thinking you need to start work on your t-shirt game, well we have an entire T shirt fabric collection with every type of pattern you can think of and even a few beautiful plain jerseys perfect for teaming with all your more exciting skirts and jazzy trousers. For fabric recommendations, please email us on howdy@fabricsgalore.co.uk 

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Welcome to the Fabrics Galore London online store, packed full of beautiful fabrics to inspire your next dressmaking, patchwork quilting, craft or home furnishing sewing project. We stock a huge range of different materials alongside designer fabrics from Liberty, Cath Kidston, Orla Kiely, Laura Ashley, William Morris and Alexander Henry. We source the highest quality fabrics, so whether it be a cotton, linen, viscose, chambray, jersey or wool, we have you covered.Check out our dressmaking fabric for something with drape, fabulous Liberty cotton lawn prints, quilting fabrics for patchwork inspiration or the home furnishing section to pimp your pad. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get sewing!

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