Essay: And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

by Johnny Davis on 15 February 2005

The humble t-shirt's contribution to fashion history comes under analysis in this essay by journalist and author Johnny Davis.

The humble t-shirt's contribution to fashion history comes under analysis in this essay by journalist and author Johnny Davis.

Middle America choked on its grits at the sight of these buff young men on their TV screens... in their underwear. Back then, T-shirts were considered underwear, and underwear only. (Marlon Brando went one further in A Streetcar Named Desire by stripping naked to the waist, but that's something for another website).

America first latched on to the idea of the T-shirt during World War I when it spotted European soldiers wearing a comfortable, lightweight cotton undershirt to help endure the European heat. By the 1920s, 'T-shirt' had found it's way into the Merriam-Webster American English Dictionary. By World War II, it had become a uniform staple for both Army and Navy.

In 1955, in Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean made the classic white t-shirt synonymous with rebellious youth. As the ultimate statement of cool, the T-shirt had arrived. By the 1960s, screenprinting and tie-dye meant that the T-shirt was transformed into a statement of individuality (albeit a statement that said 'purples and mauves shouldn't mix') and advances in production meant that the T-shirt shape could be messed around with: V-Neck, Tank Top, Scoop Neck and Muscle Shirt all originated from this era.

By the 1970s, the T-shirt had become an item of mass consumption. Bands realised they could flog lorryloads of them if they stuck their logo on the front and tour dates on the back. Sportsmen realised they were the perfect item to train in; advertisers agreed. T-shirts were cheap, easy to produce and held a design well. They became a wardrobe staple. By the Eighties fashion designers started to investigate the possibilities of T-shirts. By stamping a monogram onto the front of Ts, giants like Armani and Boss made a fortune, while a chap named Calvin Klein succeed in getting the whole world in his pants (and his T-shirts).

Some more playful ideas came about at this time; notably Katherine Hamnett's shocking, block capital slogan shirts with political statements such as 'STOP ACID RAIN' and '58% DON'T WANT PERSHING', (it was in the latter she was photographed shaking hands with a clearly rattled Margaret Thatcher). Eighties pop mavericks Frankie Goes To Hollywood had their way with the idea, and for a time in 1995, you were the coolest kid on the block if you sported a white T with 'FRANKIE SAY... ARM THE UNEMPLOYED' emblazoned across the front.

During the Eighties and Nineties the T-shirt became the only sensible option for clubbers: acid house heads used the T-shirt more as functional item than style statement (let's forget all those smiley faces and 'We Call It Aciiiieed!!!' Ts from 1989), but born out of this sense of relaxed playfulness a new generation of designers such as Stella McCartney and Kim Jones started to have fun with the T-shirt. This wasn't always met with approval in the more sniffy quarters of the fashion world - Karl Lagerfeld remarked of Chloé, 'Isn't that a T-shirt brand?' after Stella McCartney had created a range of luxury, tounge-in-cheek and best-selling Ts for the label. (His point was - T-shirts can't be proper fashion). Meantime, the Nineties saw slacker and skatewear culture booming. American labels Stüssy, X-Large and Fuct offered an up-middle-finger attitude through endless variations of cheeky slogans and logos. The trend for sportswear also kept the T-shirt's visibility high throughout the decade.

'I prefer to see a picture, or a word, rather than the designer's name,' says super-hot designer Kim Jones, whose own favourite creation features a raving Snow White and the Seven Dwarves covered in angel dust.

Today, the T-shirt has resurfaced as the personal wardrobe statement. This is particularly the case for boys. While girls could accessorise, dress-up and go bonkers everywhere from Topshop to Bottega Veneta, fashion-minded boys could only look on aghast and contemplate a wardrobe palate of shirts, trousers and shoes. Not much room for expressing yourself there. Thankfully, a combination of relaxed dress-code in the workplace, clubbing fashion and a willingness on the part of males to wear more exciting designs in more exciting colourways has meant that T-shirt sales over the last few years have been booming.

There's been an explosion of small, design-conscious labels such as Silas, Oeuf and Tonite that specialise in graphically arresting Ts for boys. At the same time boys have taken to many different types of T-shirt - loud, designer, thrift-store, ironic, celebrating a new favourite band (current/ deceased), obscure, messed-up, dressed-up. 'They've become like a coat of arms,' says Fergus Martin, designer for labels Silas and Tonite. 'They're the place to state your passions. When people started hunting out great, trashy second-hand T-shirts, a lot of designers noticed. They went back to that loud, graphic aesthetic for T-shirts. They used to be considered a medium just for teenagers.'

'I prefer to see a picture, or a word, rather than the designer's name,' says super-hot designer Kim Jones, whose own favourite creation features a raving Snow White and the Seven Dwarves covered in angel dust. 'People appreciate graphics a lot more now. You see it everywhere. French Connection - their advertising goes up on billboards, then it's on their T-shirts. My production is small at the moment, but T-shirts are a way of subsidising myself. I make hundreds and they sell quickly. If people like them then I can go and do different stuff. That's how Chloé made its 400 per cent profit.'

Not so long ago the T-shirt was the designer's lazy commercial plan B, the cheap-to-produce, sure-fire seller: even if the collection tanked, the T-shirt would sell for the same reason that designer scents keep on selling, even when a designer's reputation plummets in the industry. Now, with increasing numbers of men able to wear T-shirts to work (BBC newsreaders have already ditched jackets and ties, it can only be a matter of time), it has to work harder in their wardrobes. It can no longer be a designer's diffusion line afterthought. How do you make the T-shirt, the ultimate signifier of mass-produced clothing, a unique proposition? Only with good graphics, clever pattern cutting and quality textile research.

For boys and girls, T-shirts follow the same structure of understanding as trainers: a wardrobe basic that comes in a myriad of colours and has the same functional, fundamental shape. Even if they're over-priced, they're affordable in a way that designer jeans and suits often aren't. Plus, a T-shirt is something most people look good in - no matter what size or shape they are.

Bearing this in mind, designers have recently started getting a little more daring with their designs - check out Dior's frill-fronted efforts, Bernard Willhelm's challenging oversized designs (with necklines that fall off the shoulder) and Raf Simons' loud agit-pop slogans. The humble white T-shirt has come a long was since the days of Brando, Dean and Wayne. It's been controversial, sexy, political, ironic and just plain cool. Who knows where it's going to go next?



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