To quote, Sam Wolfson from the Guardian, “There is no such thing as a plain white T-shirt. Tiny, almost imperceptible differences between them can be life-changing. It’s also the last of the great men’s staples. So many of the sacred cows of trendy menswear have been slaughtered in recent years: skinny jeans, beanie hats, bright macs, bomber jackets, hi-top trainers – all unavoidable a few years ago, are now tacky and uncool. Yet the white T-shirt prevails.”

Man in white t-shirt sitting by motorcycle

My fourth article about the ubiquitous tee shirt took a while to be released. There are many reasons that explain this absence. This was difficult since it came from a place with several dimensions of our modern culture, be it history, pop culture, social media, empowerment movements, Hollywood, and more.

Through a personal lens, I hope to dedicate this to my father. Growing up, I could always attribute the plain white tee to my dad, his dad, and other male kin. The white tee reminded me of their preference; the act of putting on a basic piece of clothing for the day. Still to this day, I have no memory as to why these members of our family preferred the white tee shirt as opposed to a polo shirt, a branded one or the like. Spectating from the sidelines, I can sum it up as a simple, comfortable, functional, effortlessly cool, statement piece boiled into one garment. In short, it was a trademark.

Origins of the Plain White Tee

A union suit from the 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog

Historically, the white tee shirt has been around for the last 200 years (untouched), so history has claimed. Talk about a classic! To recount, the white tee shirt was perceived and used as underwear in Europe in the late 19th century.

The union suit was the earliest name for the white tee—an undergarment patented in 1868. The union suit was born from women’s clothing as a call to disregard restrictive garments, which then gained popularity during that time. It was a conservative one-piece suit with long sleeves and pants that could be worn with buttons to fasten it.

Eventually, the union suit’s popularity waned, making way for the idea to separate pants from the long sleeve. This was dubbed the henley. Henleys made mobility much easier and were restricted to boiler room jobs and underneath men’s uniforms, pre-World War I. By World War II it became a staple on the battlefield and gained mainstream likeness by the 1950s.

Making a Statement

In the 1960s there were leaps and bounds on the evolution of the tee-shirt; celebrities in Hollywood used the garment to up their sex appeal (think tight and revealing). In the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, far from the outback of Tinseltown, the shirt’s symbolism evolved to meet the needs of anti-war protestors. Attire became controversial, with shirts and one’s affiliation or political opinions having the power to influence or offend others. Colors and graphics on shirts gained steam as a response to post-war events, with the tie dye shirt being the strongest example. This, for the first time in history, was the power young people used to lead the way, claiming identity apart from previous generations.

Presently, the ethical and sustainable department of fashion guesstimates how clothes yet again connect in terms of environmental concerns. Sustainability summits are conducted annually to report updates about the fashion industry’s ecological structure, pushing for responsible consumers to be interactive with the approaches that fashion conglomerates are using. One example of a positive group is H&M’s sustainability movement. Most of the time, lesser groups incubate skepticism and cynicism behind the curtain.

Statement shirts are also gaining traction since the Me Too movement highlighted the full extent of abuse and gender discrimination. Stressing justice for present AND past crimes, articles are shining light on how tee shirts are more than just fashion. Think ELLE and some of their topics of discussion. Now runways are filled with political statements on different clothing, in front of a global audience!

Exhibitions Around the World

Changes around the world have also prompted various exhibitions that have a direct correlation to shirts, no matter the cause (with or without). One of the latest this year was entitled T-SHIRT: CULT-CULTURE-SUBVERSION, exhibited in Spain. “Charting the history, culture and subversion of the most affordable and popular item of clothing on the planet”.

Ai Wei Wei’s shirt exhibition from his previous works contains graphics that took an excerpt from the Refugee Crisis in Syria and parts of Europe, resurrected through an art installation known as Seeds and Study of Perspective. This incorporated the refugee crisis as a focal point for the work.

In addition to the innovation, the Propa Tee, curated by British Tamil artist, MIA, Gorillaz’s Remi Kabaka and Harris Eliott showcased music’s contemporary t-shirts in the last 40 years at the Southbank Centre’s Festival in 2017. This highlights music and the merger of tee shirt’s power to shorten the gap between cultures.

The t-shirt is no exception to evolution and it continues to change even when it remains classic.