At the very beginning the t-shirt was little more than a piece of underwear, an extremely utilitarian one at that. In the late 19th century the union suit, (also colloquially known as long johns), was in its hey day, worn across America and northern parts of Europe. Popular throughout class and generation, this modest knitted one-piece covered the whole body, from the neck to the wrists and ankles. The designs pièce de résistance featured a drop flap in the back for ease of use in the old outhouse. As cotton became more and more widely available, underwear manufacturers seized the moment to create an alternative to this mainstay and rather cumbersome design. Knitted material is difficult to cut and sew seams and thus with cotton a radical shift towards mass-made fashion could begin. T shirt
In Europe times were changing, as the Americans continued to sweat and itch, a simple “T-shaped” template was cut twice from a piece of cotton cloth and the two pieces faced and stitched together in a lowly European workhouse. It was half a pair of long johns, but it soon took on a life of its own. As the Industrial Revolution reached its inevitable conclusion, Henry T. Ford created the world’s first production line, the ideas of functionalism, efficiency, and utilitarian style entered the mainstream consciousness of societies across the world, and Europe in particular. Many began to question the Puritanism of the past, Victorian buttoned-down ideas of modesty were starting to give way to scantier and scantier swimsuits, ankle-bearing skirts, and short-sleeved shirts. As World War One loomed upon the horizon, the t-shirt was about to be conscripted to the army.
Historical researchers define the first recorded incident of the introduction of the T-shirt to the United States occurred during World War One when US soldiers remarked upon the light cotton undershirts European soldiers were issued as standard uniform. American soldiers were fuming, their government were still issuing woolen uniforms, this wasn’t fashion, it was practically a tactical military disadvantage. How could a sniper keep still and aim his rifle with beads of sweat pouring in his eyes, and an itch that just wouldn’t go away? The US army may not have reacted as quickly as their troops would have liked, but the highly practical and light t-shirt would soon make its way back to the mainstream American consumer.