As the reader of this blog will presumably know, we’re huge fans of jeans and everything denim. One of the reasons for this fandom is that denim is a fabric for the people. For the past decades, anywhere on earth, you can spot people wearing denim (the oddity of a dessert set aside). Yet, there is another garment that also ticks these boxes (and which you might be able to spot in the desert!) and that is the white t-shirt. The white t-shirt is simplicity at its best. It is the perfect vessel for the fashion zeitgeist of any given era. Just like jeans, the white tee has a supremely strong cultural relevance that is tied in with youth and pop culture. So strong, that it will always remain relevant. Though we all know the white tee, and most of us probably own one, most of us don’t know its origins. It is exactly that which we will touch upon in this blog. 

 

Similar garments to the t-shirt date as far back as the 17th century. It wasn’t until the 19th century though, that the t-shaped garment made from cotton found its way into the working class. The man who introduced the t-shirt to the masses was P. Hanes (a name that is inseparable from t-shirts). The Hanes Knitting Company introduced a two-set piece of underwear, consisting of a t-shirt and long johns in 1901. This set of underwear was issued to the American troops that fought in World War I for its comfort and practicality. Around the same time, the US Navy replaced their knitted wool garments for, you guessed it, a white t-shirt. Not as an undergarment, but, as an actual part of the visible uniform. The t-shirt had an array of more favourable probabilities, as it was more packable, more comfortable and could second as a towel. This utilization of the navy gave the t-shirt the allure of a tough, masculine garment. Though the Navy wore a t-shirt as part of their uniform, it was still considered as an undergarment.

The US Navy seen in white tees

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the t-shirt found its way into people’s visible day to day attire. As beforementioned, the t-shirt was seen as a piece of underwear. So, one can imagine the outrage that was caused when Hollywood stars, Marlon Brando and James Dean, wore t-shirts atop a pair of jeans in their now-classic movies. Both portraying lost and rebellious youth in the post-war era. Wearing a t-shirt was seen as something very provocative back then. People who wore t-shirts were anti-establishment and part of the counterculture. It will be no surprise then that in the 60s and 70s the t-shirt became part of the hippie uniform, together with jeans, of course. It was also during this time that the white t-shirt became a vessel for creative expression, as bands utilized the garment for merchandise of their tours, just to name an example. It is intriguing how something that was in a certain way part of ‘the establishment’ was embraced in a completely different fashion by its opposition. 

James Dean seen in a white t-shirt, through the Academy Awards

From that point onward white t-shirts were a global phenomenon. So many different cultures and sub-cultures found their way of utilizing the white t-shirts as a canvas for their expression. Bruce Springsteen can be seen sporting jeans and a white tee on the cover of ‘Born in the U.S.A.’, representing the American middle class. Preppy Ivy League students can be seen wearing tucked in white tees, white socks and penny loafers, giving it a totally different connotation. Jay-Z famously raped “For we’ve been together like Nike Airs and crisp tees” on ‘Dear Summer’. Nowadays every brand, from haute couture to heritage brands adapt the white tee in their own way. It's needless to say that the white tee has found its way into the world’s wardrobe. A true garment of the people.