The arrival of the cultural indulgence of the T-shirt as torso covering is somewhat recent in the immense historical context of Western society, but still this has rapidly become a staple in all designers’ product lines as well as the closets of the fashion onward, not to mention fashion illiterate. The T-shirt achieved popularity in the early 1950s, specifically with the depiction of iconic moody men on movies such as, James Dean putting on that white undershirt under his leather jacket in Rebel Without A Cause, or Marlon Brando dressed in a white wife beater in the end of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The use of the T-shirt alone, unaccompanied by over shirt or jacket, was a direct response against the collared shirts of the white-collar middle classes in the 1950s, who portrayed economic oppression and social invalidation of the blue collar working classes, which had to wear jumpsuits to work. However, you better believe that each jumpsuit hid beneath its cloth an undershirt, which usually would be uncovered in times of climatic necessity or on work breaks.
The practice of the T-shirt became more of a declaration when the counterculture revolution of the 1960s added to the lexicon the tie-dye and iconographic T-shirts. Individuals could say how they felt about society by means of their choice of shirt, and the remainder of society became bit by bit more receptive. In the 70s, they might be dressed in popular pictures, such as the “smiley face” and the “I heart New York” shirts. These kinds of shirts are placed into the minds of society that it is possible to be dressed in a shirt, show one’s personal ideology and belong to a community all at one time. These trends of the 70s only increased to assume the cultural identity of the T-shirt in the 80s. “Frankie says relax” is noticed on the shirts of both men and women. Clever text, gimmicks (just like thermochromatic -heat sensitive color changing- T-shirts), and business branding of T-shirts with the logos of manufacturers or designers made the T-shirt a visual social assertion, unveiling socioeconomic status in addition to interest in pop culture.
If someone had a lame T-shirt, possibly they could not afford a better one, or didn’t care. This lead into the contemporary status of the comical text shirt, stating some clever ‘original’ comments like “Sorry ladies, the shirt is staying on”, political commentaries such as caricatures of politicians, or a juxtaposition of text and image creating a pun, like “Pez-bians” featured over the graphic of two female pez dispensers kissing. The reputation of these shirts has dropped over the past decade, and now shirts designed by visual artists and silk-screened onto T-shirts for sale by means of independent distributors are the new fad.
To wear a statement on your shirt is one thing, but to wear a bright, unique, artistic vision on your clothes, the payment of which goes to support the artists to make more shirts, is a more socially creditable and aesthetically pleasurable outcome. The T-shirt is simply not just a means of covering. There are some cotton T-shirts, such as the one by designer Balmain, that’s worth $1625 dollars. Be it to work in the garden or to go to the MTV Music Video Awards, the T-shirt is more than a must have. It’s a part of our cultural heritage.