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Graphic Tees(e)

T-shirts are everywhere you look. They come in a dizzying array of cuts, colors, necklines, and designs; but when and where did this wardrobe ‘basic’ come into vogue? Time to rummage waaaaaaay back into Father Time’s closet.


Apparel-ently, the ancestor of the T-shirt dates back to ‘a tunic-type garment’— tunic, deriving from the Latin tunica—worn by both men and women in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Fast forward to the end of the 19th century when workers started wearing union suits, which basically amounted to an adult onesie. In summer months, workers cut them in half and tucked the ‘top’ into the ‘button’. The T-shirt was born! (I’d argue it was rather the birth of the track suit.)

Vintage ad for men’s union suits, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By 1913, the Cooper Underwear Company manufactured and sold buttonless ‘bachelor undershirts’. These undershirts eventually became an official part of US Navy uniforms and were known as ‘lightweight short-sleeve white cotton undervests’ — not a particularly catchy phrase.

Rebel in Short Sleeves

In the 1920s publication of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise, the garment shaped like a letter ‘T’ was referred to as a ‘T-shirt’ for the first time. Once Merriam Webster added the word to the dictionary, it was official.

Although T-shirts could be found in department stores throughout the 30s, and in high schools in the 40s (kids those days . . . ), it wasn’t until the 50s when heart throbs like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause wore them on the silver screen, thus popularizing the T-shirt as a symbol for youthful rebellion.

In-house publicity still, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

From Strip Tease to Graphic Tees(e)

Throughout the decades — much like Madonna and Cher’s lingerie — what was once considered underwear became popularized as outerwear. Eventually, brands, companies, campaigns, and causes alike saw them as a marketing opportunity—much like walking billboards.

Air Corps Gunnery School, 13 Jul 1942, © Life Magazine

Featured on the July 13, 1942 cover of Life Magazine, the first printed graphic ‘tee’ credit often goes to the Air Corps Gunnery School, though governor Thomas Dewey’s “Dew-It with Dewey,” 1948 campaign T-shirt — now on display in the Smithsonian Institute — is the oldest known printed slogan design used for promotional purposes.

And speaking of political slogan T-shirts . . . remember this pop culture reference?

Carlos Varela, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fashion Sense (of Self-Expression)

From then on, T-shirts exploded with popularity and are now a staple of just about everybody’s wardrobes. Sometimes plain, often emblazoned with logos, graphics, or slogans, they come in every shape, size, neckline, color, design, and fabric. They make their appearance from the cat walk to the sidewalk—the wearer often making some kind of fashion, political, social or cultural statement.

“[The T-shirt] is a really basic way of telling the world who and what you are.”

— Dennis Nothdruft

A self-professed T-shirt aficionado, I would argue that graphic tees can be broken down into several categories such as:

  • Branded
  • Sports Team
  • Novelty
  • Cause/Campaign
  • Promotional
  • Licensed
  • Lettering
  • Vintage
  • Tourism
  • and Rock Band/Tour (just to name a few)
(Left to right) Compassion Over Killing, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Peter Stevens from Seattle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford and Largs, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m especially partial to novelty, graphic, and lettering T-shirts, including oddly translated English phrases, and yes, cat tees!

A sampling of my cat-themed T-shirt collection

Isn’t It Ironic?

Sometimes one person’s ‘cringe wear’ is another person’s ironic fashion statement. In the 1980s when all the cool kids were wearing Panama Jack and Izod, my siblings and I suffered through wearing T-shirts with slogans such as “Have You Seen My Keys to Success?” (with graphic illustration of car keys) and “My Folks Bought This Dumb Shirt (In New Madrid). These T-shirts were primarily purchased by our grandmother.

My siblings and I wearing matching New Madrid T-shirts

Since my siblings and I grew up wearing some of THE MOST embarrassing T-shirts imaginable, it’s funny to imagine we all grew up with a passion for wearing graphic tees — often ironically. I wear them pretty much every day. I guess you could say graphic T-shirts are my de-facto uniform.

Fashion Tip: Speaking of uniforms, you can dress them up–with a blazer for an office casual look.

If you’re inspired to sport your own graphic T-shirts (ironically, or not) check out some of my favorite sites: Spring, 6 Dollar Shirts, and Threadless! No, I’m not getting a commission of every shirt sold, but I wish I was!

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Martini Minute

Hi Everybody! I’m Roberta Morris, Founder and Creative Director of Leave It to ’Berta. Read my take on all things colorful and creative.