A Brief and Incomplete Timeline of T-Shirt History

1913 The First T-Shirt Models

White cotton, crewneck T-shirts became regulation underwear for the U.S. Navy. Two decades later, at the University of Southern California, football players don similar shirts to prevent chafing from heavy shoulder pads. The tees became so fashionable that students start pilfering them for casual wear. In response, the school began stenciling “Property of USC” on its T-shirts as a crime-prevention tactic, not a statement of pride.

1951 An Undershirt Named Desire

Hollywood rebel Marlon Brando exudes animal magnetism in A Streetcar Named Desire when he wears a thin, white T-shirt. Teens dig the look, and by year’s end, T-shirt sales total $180 million. But for Brando, the style is only a means to an end. A graduate of The Actors’ Studio, he’d learned to use his body to show his character’s inner turmoil. The T-shirt is only a thin veil, meant to cover not only his rippling physique, but also his character’s bestial urges.

1969 Tie-Dyed Shirts Become Groovy

For decades, the only people using Rit dye were old women who wanted to color their drapes and linens. But in the mid-60s, advertising whiz Don Price markets the dye to hippies, who use it to tie-dye their tees. But Price’s real stroke of genius comes in 1969, when he produces hundreds of the shirts and gives them away to performers at Woodstock. The multicolored tops are quickly adopted as part of the counterculture uniform.

1977 I ♥ NY

Throughout the 1970s, New York City gains a reputation as a tourists’ nightmare -dirty, decadent, and crime-ridden. To revitalize the city’s image, the Commerce Department hires designer Milton Glaser to fashion an eye-catching logo for the city. Over lunch one day, Glaser sketches “I ♥ NY” on a napkin. The logo spearheads a resurgence in New York tourism and becomes the most imitated T-shirt design in history. Glaser claims that the shirt’s appeal comes from decoding the symbols: “You feel smart when you figure it out.”

1984 Frankie Learns to Talk

BBC Radio bans song “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, claiming the lyrics are too explicitly sexual. Naturally, sales of the single skyrocket, and the song goes to No. 1. To flaunt the band’s triumph over censorship, record label owner Paul Morley puts the song’s words in big capital letters on T-shirts.

The “FRANKIE SAYS RELAX” tee turn millions of music fans into human billboards. Soon, Frankie knock-offs are everywhere. Although the band’s popularity quickly dies, the T-shirt lives on, appearing on the torso of everyone from Jennifer Anniston to Homer Simpson.

-The article by Bill DeMain is reprinted from an issue of mental_floss magazine.


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