Dennis is the Co-Founder, CEO and Janitor of AT-95. Whether he’s ready for a meeting or cleaning up the offices (yes, he really is the Janitor), you’ll almost always find him in a crisp white T-shirt. No labels or brands, just simple and clean. Dennis’ affinity for white T-Shirts goes deeper than just a simple ‘wardrobe’ solution. As with many things, there is an interesting history behind the concept of the T-Shirt.
Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Attempted Murder, and the History of the T-Shirt
If it weren’t for Marlon Brando, the U.S. Navy, and America’s working class during the 19th Century, the T-shirt as we know it today may have never existed, especially after Clark Gable came very close to killing any chance the T-shirt had of ever achieving the success it boasts today.
It all started in Utica, New York in 1868, after a patent was filed for a type of one-piece underwear known as a “union suit.” The union suit originated as women’s wear during the late 19th Century United States clothing reform efforts, which pushed to popularize clothing that was more rational and comfortable than the constricting, Victorian fashions of the time.
Originally, the union suit was made of red flannel with long arms, long legs, buttons up the front, and a button-flap in the rear. It wasn’t until the tail-end of the popularity of the union suit that it became a piece of working men’s wear. Until the ‘50s, it was commonplace for rural men to wear the same union suit continuously all week.
However, it wasn’t convenient for those working in hot environments. The solution? Cut the one-piece union suit into separate top and bottom garments to enable better aeration, which is exactly what the workers did.
Shortly after this division, miners and dockworkers adopted the top garment (with and without buttons) as a convenient covering for hot environments, which consequently kick-started the evolution of the T-shirt as we know it today from undergarment to outerwear.
Despite this fact, it wasn’t until the U.S. Navy issued T-shirts as slip-on garments sans buttons in 1913 that they became nationally popular and not just a pillar of the work wear donned by miners and dockworkers.
These military issue T-shirts were a crew-necked, short-sleeved, white cotton undershirt intended to be worn under a uniform. Naturally, it became common for sailors and Marines to remove their uniform jacket during work parties, within submarines, and in tropical climates, thereby exposing only the undershirt to soiling.
As pictures emerged in newspapers of America’s military men clad in T-shirts as they worked, the popularity of the T-shirt as a bottom layer of clothing for workers in various industries increased exponentially.
The reason? The T-shirt was easily fitted, easily cleaned, and inexpensive, and for this reason it became the shirt of choice for young boys and working men alike.
Then it happened. The darkest day ever for the T-shirt. The day it came dangerously close to losing all the success it had generated over the past two decades. The day it almost died. And it was all Clark Gable’s fault.
In 1934, Gable starred in the romantic comedy It Happened One Night. At the time of its release, Gable had already solidified his position as a sex symbol in American pop culture. So, when he ditched the T-shirt in It Happened One Night in favor of sporting a bare chest to display his masculinity, American males took notice. So much notice that T-shirt sales in the United States plummeted 75%, almost entirely erasing the popularization of the T-shirt by military men during the two decades that had passed since 1913.
17 years later, and a mere six years after World War II, the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire was released, starring a 27-year-old Marlon Brando, who — like Gable — was an American sex symbol, although not to the same degree as Gable… not yet, anyways.
The movie, which went on to win four awards at the 24th Academy Awards and became the 5th biggest hit of 1951, featured Brando sporting a white T-shirt for much of the movie. It was because of this that the T-shirt finally shook its status as work wear and took on the status as a piece of fashionable, stand-alone, outerwear. In fact, by year’s end, T-shirt sales totaled $180 million.
Despite roughly 60 years since Brando starred in Streetcar and over a century since the last stitch of the first union suit was sewn, very little has managed to suppress the popularity of the T-shirt. Through conquest and compromise, war and peace, and life and death, the T-shirt has remained steadfast as an American icon.
We don’t know about you, but we think that’s pretty damn cool.