In the first appearance of the T‑shirt we know and love today, submariners working for the U.S. Navy were issued plain white cotton T‑shirts. This helped them work more comfortably during the long months spent in the sweltering close quarters of a submarine.
Versatile, comfortable, and easy to clean, the T‑shirt becomes the unofficial uniform of manual laborers throughout the entire U.S. military. After the war it quickly spreads to miners, farmers, and factory workers all around the world.
The early 1950’s is the age of the hyper-masculine actor, as seen in films like The Wild One, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Rebel Without a Cause. Women swooned over them and men wanted to be them. But what did the characters played by Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Elvis Presley have in common? That's right. The T‑shirt.
With high profile actors and musicians sporting the T‑shirt, its popularity skyrockets. From a plain workers uniform, the T‑shirt quickly becomes chic, iconic, THE essential wardrobe item.
By the 60’s, screen-printing on garments has been mechanized on a large scale, and the world is highly politicized. It’s the era of Woodstock and the Vietnam War. The T‑shirt becomes the ubiquitous symbol of anti-Vietnam and anti-establishment proclamations.
Late in the 60’s, Warren Dayton would pioneer art on T‑shirts, depicting Cesar Chavez, the Statue of Liberty, lungs filled with pollution, and other political images.
As screen printing evolves, it becomes possible to put photorealistic imagery and perfect copies of artwork onto T‑shirts. Guns ‘N Roses are one of the first bands to really take advantage of this. The concept of the rock T‑shirt explodes, with The Rolling Stones’ "tongue and lips" design and the Pink Floyd prism showing up at every concert.
In 1977, New York State’s Department of Commerce hires well-known graphic designer Milton Glaser to create a marketing campaign for New York City. Glaser drew his inspiration from a Montreal radio campaign on CJAD Montreal (Quebec, Canada) entitled "Montreal, the city with a heart".
Today, Glaser’s original mockups, and the actual “I heart NY” T‑shirt, are part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and it’s among the most iconic T‑shirts in history.
The rock ‘n’ roll T‑shirt conquers Europe, and is quickly adopted by the punk rock movement. Loathe to copy a mainstream concept, punks take to ripping, tearing and altering their T‑shirts, to emphasize wear and tear and their alternative culture.
As counter-culture movements like rock ‘n’ roll and punk rock take root, new movements such as skateboarding co-opt the anti-establishment lifestyle and use the T‑shirt to stand out and stick together.
Tony Alva, one of the three skaters from the infamous Z-Boys skate team, and by far the most famous, creates his own company that pushes the Alva brand on skateboards, shoes, and most of all, T‑shirts.
In 1989, Canada’s Dov Charney creates what is now one of the largest T‑shirt manufacturers in the world. Founded as a wholesale, plain T‑shirt manufacturer, American Apparel has since captured a sizeable market share through savvy advertising and a ‘Made in the U.S.A’ label, reaching a larger and larger clientele.
According to The New York Times, theirs is the largest factory producing a single garment in all of the United States.
Since the 1990s, designer-name T‑shirts have become very popular with teenagers and young adults. These garments allow consumers to satisfy their desire for luxury brands in an inexpensive way, while looking good. Designers who’ve made T‑shirts in their image include Calvin Klein, FUBU and Ralph Lauren.
The "Three Wolf Moon" T‑shirt becomes an Internet sensation thanks to a humorous Amazon review, which then spawns thousands more funny comments. Sales explode for The Mountain, the T‑shirt's creator, the same company responsible for the "Big Face" animal T‑shirts, which are now vying for their own moment of fame.
2013 sees the creation of the world’s first programmable T‑shirt. Known by its prototype as tshirtOS, it’s a collaboration between Ballantine and wearable tech company CuteCircuit. These high-tech T‑shirts are fitted with a soft LCD screen that can display Facebook statuses, tweets and even Instagram photos.