History and Theory of the Plain White T-Shirt

Key Takeaways

  1. A staple in everyone’s wardrobe, and a signature item for most of the fashion brands active today, the white T-shirt is a historicized item whose foundations are to be traced back to the Industrial Revolution.
  2. In the 1960s, the white tee suddenly became a canvas for social, cultural, and political messages—printed, spray-painted, stitched, drawn onto the white jersey surface.
  3. Today, a plain white crewneck is the perfect answer to fashion-induced anxiety.

In fashion’s current landscape, filled with visual clutter and information overload, it is in understated quality that the very essence of luxury is found. The whole is only as good as the sum of its parts, these basics are solid components, iconic essentials for building your look.”
—the Prada Three-Pack

Around 1864, the English inventor William Cotton patented the first steam-powered knitting machine, a device that made large-scale factory production of fully-fashioned garments possible in the knitting industry. The legacy of these machines surpassed Cotton’s death in 1887, surviving the global catastrophes of the World Wars and developing further throughout the years until today. A product of the Industrial Revolution, the invention of knitting and sewing machines coincided with the cultural moment when workers’ rights and wages were being rediscussed. At this time, paid holidays and weekends were introduced, marking the need for comfortable clothing for workers to wear on their off days. Leisurewear came up as a result.

Prada Three-Pack

In 1901, P. Hanes Knitting Company launched a two-piece underwear set that looked very similar to today’s white T-shirt. The two-piece marked a radical shift from the traditional one-piece union suit, and the birth of a novelty piece of clothing: the T-shirt. The white cotton jersey crewneck went on to be incorporated in standard military uniforms during World War I as an underwear piece and adopted by the Navy in 1913 as the premiere light garment for its sailors. 

The introduction of the iconic T-shaped silhouette marked a breakthrough in fashion design and popular culture. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, F. Scott Fitzgerald was the first to use the word “T-shirt” in print; it appears in his 1920 novel “This Side of Paradise,” in a list of accoutrements that a character carries with him to boarding school. By the 1930s, the white tee had become a staple for college sportsmen, who were wearing it on social occasions, stating the de facto transition of the T-shirt from the private to the public sphere.

The T-shirt soon became a wearable piece of clothing, skyrocketing from the underwear realm towards the institutionalized, acceptable dress code. In 1938, American retailer Sears launched their own T-shaped model, advertising it with a campaign bearing the slogan “It’s an undershirt, it’s an outershirt”—the T-shirt was making its debut outside.

The Second World War brought new semantics to the item—an idea of heroic masculinity was popularized through images of the US Army and Navy troops wearing white, short-sleeved, cotton crewnecks. “You don’t need to be a soldier to have your own personal T-shirt,” Sears proclaimed in 1941.

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955

In post-war society, the revolutionary connotation of the white T-shirt occurred by detournement. New icons in popular culture, aided by media and the newborn Hollywoodian cinema industry, made it a true symbol of rebelliousness: Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951), Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) contributed to the shift of the white tee from the Army locker room to men’s casual wardrobe.

The T-shirt game was then a male-only jam; a status that endured until the 1970s. As a result of experiences such as the Women’s Liberation Movement and the countercultural climate in the late 1960s, dressing became less codified, reinterpreted as the vehicle for expressing identity. The white tee suddenly became a canvas for social, cultural, and political messages—printed, spray-painted, stitched, drawn onto the white jersey surface. This process of customization led to the graphic T-shirt phenomenon as we know it today—a technique invented by necessity during the 1968 protests, and championed by the global punk subculture.

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, 1974

By the mid-1970s, women began appropriating the white T-shirt’s elemental masculinity, subverting it to a genderless symbol of simplicity and effortlessness. As the white T-shirt entered the sphere of womenswear, it contingently surfaced within European culture, ceasing to be considered an all-American icon. This shift coincided with the reinforcement of the fashion-stereotyped vision of the chic European woman—particularly, the Parisian woman—championed by couture brands such as Chanel, Hermès, and Celine. The Jane Birkin-type of femininity corresponded with the idea of chicness that these maisons were propagating. In this sartorial framework, the white T-shirt worked very well; it became the genderless antithesis to the little black dress.

With the white tee becoming a standard crossing over menswear and womenswear, from the 1980s onwards it became the uniform of pop-stars, supermodels, fashion designers, and artists worldwide, predicting a phenomenon the fashion industry was yet to witness: Minimalism. Until the 2000s, brands such as Maison Margiela, Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, Ann Demeulemeester, Rick Owens—among others—reworked the iconic garment to the max, experimenting with its construction and fabrication, furthering the tradition of the white T-shirt as a sartorial piece.

Maison Margiela, SS 1996

More recently, normcore blew up our screens and took office as the main trend of the late-2000s. The idea of a utilitarian yet sophisticated piece of clothing sat very well with millennial irony and anxiety: something you could wear everywhere, something for a generation that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Legendary quality-essentials brand JJJJound heralded the 2.0 sartorial white T-shirt, selling out their two-packs within seconds anytime they would drop online to customers paying a premium price for a well-designed, understated garment—a statement piece because of the lack of any possible statement.

As things get chaotic around us, a plain white tee is the antidote: a crisp, earnest passepartout against fashion-induced anxiety.

Kanye West x A.P.C., Hip Hop Tee, 2013