THE classic white T-shirt has its humble beginnings as nothing more than a thin crew neck undershirt for the US Navy at the start of the 20th century. From World War I through World War II, the flimsy military issue underwear slowly became an essential for any man's wardrobe. But it wasn't until 1951 when Marlon Brando stole the screen in A Streetcar Named Desire that a plain T-shirt became a symbol of style, machismo, and a stand alone fashion statement. Over the following seventy years, that simple undershirt has grown into an icon of American fashion, worn by influential men and women alike. Let's look at some of the best over the years and how such a simple design has become so beloved.
1951, Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire
1955, James Dean, Rebel Without A Cause
The 1950's ushered in the "Golden Age of Hollywood" and the beginning of commonplace home television. Soon, fashion trends would grow at blistering speed via the influence of on-screen advertising.
One of the most influential Black and female athletes in track and field history, Wilma Rudolph elevated the sport of women's track like no one before her. Winning bronze in 1956 and three golds in the 1960 Olympics, she was an international symbol of Black excellence and female athletic achievement. Style in the 1960s was polarized, high brow and polished, as well as the emergence of the Hippie movement and it's iconic fashion. But the lowly T-shirt was still considered an undergarment or for sports/training, seen here in 1961 while Rudolph wins the 50m at Madison Square Garden.
1961, Maya Rudolph
The style in the 1970's trended more casual, and an archetypical T-shirt design began: the concert Tee. Beyond that, iconic T-shirts like the Smiley Face design started the trend of selling shirts printed with generic logos with mass-appeal.
The 1980's changed everything about fashion and set trends that would carry on the next 40 years (and some that definitely, definitely wouldn't).
Perhaps none more iconic than Don Johnon of Miami Vice. Almost everything about his style became desirable, but the T-shirt under the Armani jacket undeniably gained popularity in the pastel-toned episodes of Miami Vice.
In music the fashion statements were even more incredible, and often over-the top in typical 1980's style. But that made the early Madonna, in laid-back and rebellious style, even more influential. Like James Dean, Madonna made the T-shirt a sign of rebellion, this time for women in the iconic suspenders photo shoot.
1984, Miami Vice
Styles of the 1990s that became standouts of the era frequently featured the T-shirt as an integral part of the look. Kurt Cobain established the grunge style, with ripped jeans and an open flannel or button down shirt over a plain Tee. This style was directly shooting back at the polished, crispy button up or Tee tucked into straight leg clean jeans or khakis, like Jerry Seinfeld wore in every episode of Seinfeld. We also saw the beginning of the denim jacket over the T shirt, worn by everyone from Brad Pitt to Lauryn Hill. And the leather jacket over the white shirt, like Drew Barrymore and Winona Ryder.
And we can't forget the colors and patterns, perhaps done no better than by Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Unfortunately for nearly everyone, the 2000's did not exactly inspire classic fashions trends. In terms of T-shirts, only TapOut comes to mind... In terms of anything else, I'll invite you to relive what was considered "fashionable" then in the photo to the right.
2001, Britney Spears and JT looking... stunning
Which brings us, to the present day, here in 2021 where the styles of the 2010s are well established and the next wave is just beginning. Anecdotally, I feel the grunge style of the 90's never really went away and is in full swing again. A major shift in casual fashion recently is the renewed appreciation for durable, well-crafted goods, and made in USA options. This coincides with a smaller wardrobe, more minimal styles, and a lack of flash and text on clothing. Style among celebrities has trended more humble, and unisex too. And what's more unisex than the classic white T-Shirt.
Someone who fully embodies all of what seems to be the growing trend in fashion these days is Evan Mock, whose fashion and style is both fun and functional, classic yet fresh, and that often blends the line between traditionally "male" and "female" fashion. Shown here looking inspired by nearly every era listed above and yet the hair and the painted nails are scream modern.
2020, Evan Mock