Originally designed to be hidden under other clothes, the T-shirt has become one of the essential elements of casual fashion in the United States and around the world. The T-shirt, so-called because of its T-like shape, was issued as an undergarment to servicemen during the first two world wars (1914–18 and 1939–45). The short-sleeved T-shirt was made of soft cotton fabric, much more comfortable than the woolen undergarments typical since 1880, and it quickly became a favorite with soldiers and sailors alike.
The hard work of war soon found military men stripping down to their white T-shirts to do their jobs in relative comfort. By the end of World War II in 1945, pictures of sailors and soldiers working in nothing more than pants and T-shirts had become quite common. In 1942 T-shirted military men even appeared on the cover of Life magazine, one of the most popular magazines of the time, marking the transition of the T-shirt from undershirt to an acceptable outer shirt.
The return home of servicemen soon made the T-shirt an essential part of working men's wardrobes. The popularity of the T-shirt was further fueled by Hollywood. Films featuring male film stars in T-shirts associated the shirts with masculine power, sexuality,
Soon T-shirts were used to make political statements or simply to express a point of view. During the Vietnam War (1954–75) plain white T-shirts worn by young men associated them with a conservative political attitude, while more liberal (progressive) men wore tie-dyed or painted T-shirts. Women began to use the T-shirt to make their own statements during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The T-shirt's clingy fabric accentuated women's shapeliness.
The symbolism of T-shirts became much more obvious when T-shirts started carrying written messages. T-shirts displayed the widest range of opinions and messages, from the pleasant "Have a Nice Day" to offensive profanity and from college university names to professional sports teams. T-shirts turned their wearers into walking billboards for popular brands such as Nike or Old Navy. Whether you wanted to show your love of a local college, a brand of soda pop, or a favorite rock band, there was a T-shirt for you. At the beginning of the twenty-first century T-shirts continued to be an essential component of wardrobes around the world and were, along with blue jeans, the foremost examples of American fashion.
Harris, Alice. The White T. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.