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Tshirts have become popular to wear, mostly because of comfort.
Generally, people dress to be comfortable," he said. When houses were cold and
drafty, and the only source of heat was the fireplace, they wore long, heavy underwear
and a tshirt to keep warm. When houses became more comfortable, people got out of their long
johns. Then cheap tee shirts became more popular.
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A T-Shirt History: From Underwear to Outerwear
By Mark E. Dixon, Associate Editor
When tracing the history of imprinted sportswear, the first issue is: Which came
first? The imprinting? Or the sportswear on tshirts?
As with chickens and eggs, the dilemma is not resolved. People have been both
wearing clothes and drawing pictures for a considerably long time.
Mesa, Ariz., screen printer / airbrusher Spider likes to tell the (possibly
apocryphal) story of the Chinese merchant who, about 2500 B.C., combined the even-then
old art of stenciling and then-current rage at the Emperor's court -- decorated robes
-- to produce an early printed garment.
"I'm not sure where that story comes from," said Spider, "but even today I can see
that old Chinaman's reasoning: There was a big market for a printed garment and it was
faster and cheaper to stencil it than to paint it by hand."
Those who insist that sportswear is the critical ingredient in this industry, though,
may prefer to trace its history to the mid-19th Century when trendy young gentlemen's
"base ball" clubs began to appear in marked garments. The date of this development is
uncertain, although an old photograph in the collection of the National Baseball Hall
of Game, Cooperstown, N.Y., shows that the Atlantics of Brooklyn wore emblems of
crossed baseball bats when the beat the New York Excelsiors in 1860.
(Like many sportswear consumers of today, the Atlantics liked their accessories
flashy. Their printed shirts were complemented by the ballooning, bright red pants
which marked many volunteer soldiers as inviting targets for Confederate sharpshooters
at the Battle of Bull Run the following year.)
For really hard cases, who insist that there is no imprinted sportswear without the
T-shirt, the story probably begins more recently, although no less obscurely.
There is, for instance, "The British Story," of which Harold Lipson, a retired senior
vice president of Champion Products, Rochester, N.Y., is a proponent.
According to Lipson, sailors in the Royal Navy before the turn of the century wore a
sleeveless undergarment similar to today's tank top, but made of a heavy, woolen
fabric. This was considered the daily uniform for shipboard duties, he said, with
dress uniforms being saved for special occasions.
That changed, said Lipson, late in the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) when a
member of royalty -- perhaps the queen herself -- was scheduled to inspect the fleet.
"The brass apparently looked at their men and decided that sweaty, hairy underarms
were not a fit sight for royalty," he explained. "They ordered the men to sew sleeves
on their underwear."
Other explanations for the appearance of the Tshirt are less complete. Indeed,
several researchers suggest that the garment just spontaneously evolved during the
1920s, a product of changing habits and advancing technology. For instance, Vincent
Minetti, a fashion expert with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, noted that
the appearance of lighter underwear coincided with the appearance of central heat.
In that chilly period before the furnace, the undergarment of choice was the union
suit, a button-front, drop-seat affair which reached from neck to knees. It came in
either cotton or wool and, each year, the transition from summer to winter was marked
by millions of U.S. men as they got into their "woolies." Women wore similar garments.
The union suit was, until well after World War I, the chief product of Union
Underwear, Bowling Green, Ky., and the item from which the firm took its name. But
Everett Moore, retired chairman of the board at Union, said the union suit's
popularity began to trail off in the 1920s.
"A lot of young people just didn't like it," he said. "In earlier years, they
wouldn't have had any choice, but the light knits were beginning to show up and people
were wearing separate undershirts and undershorts."
Union, said Moore, began manufacturing undershirts in 1932, thus providing something
of a landmark by which to date the abandonment of the union suit.
Ingrid Mendelsohn, a researcher with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington,
contends that the transition from heavy to light underwear began during World War I.
The American Expeditionary Force was sent to France in 1917, she noted, wearing
long-sleeved wool undershirts. However, said Mendelsohn, more than a few doughboys
shed their regulation undergarments "over there" and came home in the French
military's light, knit-cotton undershirts. These shirts were still sleeveless,
Minetti repeated this story, although maintaining that, even after the Great War,
U.S. underwear tshirt was still a far cry from today's T-shirt.
"Underwear was still long and it wasn't even all cotton," he said. "Some of what the
A.E.F. brought home was silk. The thing the boys really took to in France was the
lightness and comfort."