A Brief History Of The T-shirt

You can always judge a man by the t-shirt he wears. Brando made them cool, Che Guevara became ubiquitous and bands used them as a marketing device. I love them...
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There are a number of firsts in life that are indelible. I can vividly recall my first day at school, my first kiss, my first football match, my first gig, my first pay packet…along with my first ever t-shirt.

It has to be said that my lifelong love affair with the t-shirt didn’t get off to the best of starts. I was eleven at the time, thin as piss on a hot stone, and, so far as I was concerned, Marc Bolan was the greatest pop star on the planet. Get It On, Jeepster, Metal Guru…Marc and his glammed-up boogie could do no wrong in my book. I’d spotted a T. Rex shirt for sale on the local market: the cover of The Slider album, complete with stunning photograph by Ringo Starr, on a t-shirt. That was to be my best ever birthday present. Except it didn’t turn out that way.

On the day in question, I leapt out of bed, raced downstairs and ripped open the wrapping only to find that Marc Bolan was nowhere to be seen. In his place was Gilbert O’Sullivan. “They were fresh out of Marc Bolans,” my mum casually explained, “so I got the next best thing.” Now, clearly, this was not a case of the next best thing. Marc Bolan was the coolest man on the planet and anyone with any taste would be proud to wear his face on a shirt. Gilbert O’Sullivan, on the other hand, wore short trousers and a cloth cap, sported a pudding basin haircut and looked older than my great uncle Stan, and Stan had fought in WW1.

Needless to say, the Gilbert t-shirt was never worn though, for a few months, it came in handy when my Raleigh Chopper needed a bit of buffing up.

Misery had surely found me on that ill-fated birthday. On the other hand, a valuable life lesson had been learned. Namely: you can’t fuck about with a t-shirt. If you wear one, it has to be the right one, the right one for you. Wear the wrong t-shirt or wear a shirt with dubious intentions (i.e. to impress people) and you’re pointing yourself in the wrong direction, just asking for trouble, probably damned for all eternity.

There is some dispute about the actual origins of what we know today as the t-shirt. Certainly, forms of underwear shirts can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt. Something much closer to the t-shirt in design was commonly distributed among navy servicemen in the early 1900s. During WW2 the t-shirt became standard issue in both the U.S Army and the Navy. Designed principally as underwear, soldiers were known to wear them without shirt coverings in hot climates.

However it wasn’t until the 1950s that the t-shirt properly achieved the status of a stand-alone, outer-wear garment, largely thanks to Mr. Marlon Brando. In 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando’s sweat-drenched Stanley Kowalski returns from a bowling session, removes his sticky white t-shirt in front of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche, and changes into a fresh one, “to make myself comfortable.” And thus the t-shirt realized its first iconic moment, to be followed in 1955 by James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. The t-shirt was no longer simply a garment. It was now a part of the culture, a symbol of youthful rebellion.

The classic white t-shirt as modelled by Brando and Dean would never really go out of fashion and boomed in popularity during the seventies and eighties largely thanks to Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli and Don Johnson respectively.

However, as the 60s dawned and screenprinting became more advanced, people were waking up to the idea that the t-shirt was a blank canvas, waiting to be filled and used to make a statement, any kind of statement you care to name. Protests over the Vietnam War saw thousands take to the streets of America with "Make Love Not War" emblazoned on their chests. One of the most popular symbols to emerge out of the political turmoil of 1960s were t-shirts bearing the face of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Indeed, the Guevara t-shirt has long been established as the biggest-selling t-shirt of all time, even though the vast majority of those who bought it probably haven’t the foggiest who Guevara was and just thought the photo looked cool.

The image of Che Guevara wouldn’t have been welcome in my home in the 1960s. In fact, up to the aforementioned Bolan/O’Sullivan incident, the wearing of t-shirts was officially banned in my house. My mum considered t-shirts to be nothing more than “glorified vests” and so considered the wearing of them to be somewhat “common”. Whenever I tried to argue the point she would say “I don’t want you walking around looking like Alf Garnett,” and that was the end of the matter.

Flat-capped Gilbert O’Sullivan might not have been the t-shirt I wanted but the fact that my mother had gone out and bought me that garment was cast-iron evidence of a sea change in attitudes chez Wilde. Which was just as well because we were about to enter the first truly golden age of the t-shirt. From the early seventies, t-shirts began more and more to reflect pop culture in all its myriad manifestations. Most obviously, this was a time when rock bands started to grasp the full import of being able to flog merchandise to fans who would then become walking advertising boards for their albums and tours. The first t-shirt I bought was one that featured Roxy Music in their early pomp. OK, being among the moody variety of garments (bought from Dodgy Den on that same market), some of the band members’ names had been misspelt (Brian Ferry, Bryan Eno) but it was still a step up from Gilbert O’Sullivan.

After Roxy came Slade (a glorious day-glo image of Noddy Holder), Wizzard (the wonderfully garish sleeve of Wizzard Brew) and Suzi Quatro (48 Crash, with her nipples tantalizingly showing through the t-shirt she was wearing, if you used a magnifying glass).

Though it was undoubtedly a golden age for the t-shirt, the ready availability of shirt designs meant that some genuine horrors became unaccountably popular. When my parents took me to Butlins in 1975 half the people there seemed to be decked out in shirts that declared “I’m with stupid”, “Who farted?” and “My parents went to Butlins and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”.


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By this time, I’d made up my mind that clear and distinct rules were needed if one intended to go through life wearing t-shirts. Firstly, I promised myself that I’d never wear a shirt that had become too popular. Not because I’m an elitist twat, necessarily. Only because I don’t want to look like the sort of man who is wearing the same shirt as everyone else because he clearly lacks the imagination to choose his own design. Thus, I gave a wide berth to the yellow happy face as designed by Bernard and Murray Spain that seemed to be as omnipresent in 1975 as Brut aftershave, the Kevin Keegan perm, Mike Yarwood and Vesta curry. I was the very first to sport a Rolling Stones Tongue logo in my town but, as soon as everyone else started wearing the shirt, I set fire to mine and chucked it in the bin. Thereafter, you wouldn’t have found me dead in a Frankie Says, a Katherine Hamnet Choose Life or, more recently, a Shepard Fairey Obama/Hope.

I also decided that I would never wear a brand logo on my chest. Bands were OK. By wearing a Ramones or a Velvet Underground shirt, I was simply declaring my musical taste loud and clear. But I drew the line at becoming a moveable billboard for Coca-Cola, Nike or even FCUK. I also made up my mind never to wear a t-shirt that had anything to do with anything I would have nothing to do with. However cool they look, Harley-Davidson shirts are for people who ride Harley choppers. I’m scared of motorbikes and I look like the kind of old dude who is scared of bikes so, if I wore such a shirt, I’d look like a fraud, and a total prick.

Surf shirts are for surfers. Skate shirts are for skaters. Hard Rock Café shirts are for people who like to dine out at the Hard Rock Café and get a boner from staring at Elton John’s old tour boots.

In other words, I decided that, if I was going to wear a t-shirt, then it had to be a shirt that told the truth about my tastes and opinions. Through the eighties and nineties, I made my living primarily as a music journalist. One of the perks of being a music journalist in those days was that record companies would send you piles of promotional t-shirts in the hope that you would write nice things about their mostly hideous bands. My rules were unwavering. If I liked the band, I’d wear their shirt. If I didn’t like the band, I’d use the shirt to clean around the back of the crapper, then chuck it away. On the one hand I saved a few quid on J-cloths. On the other, I’d now be making a fortune flogging those shirts off on eBay. But rules are rules. And, let us not forget, the man without rules is Genghis Khan.

My wardrobe currently houses a grand total of 55 t-shirts. Fifty of these are musically connec ted. The other five designs are in praise of Popeye (every self-respecting man should own one, just one cartoon t-shirt), Tommy Cooper, Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko, Louise Brooks and my spaniel Banjo. There’s one other t-shirt I keep under my bed, just for old time’s sake. It’s strictly a D-I-Y effort, made at the height of punk rock. A classic white shirt, it has been defaced with the words “Fuck the police” in permanent black marker and it’s got a piss-poor drawing of a policeman in the top left-hand corner of it. That shirt doesn’t get too many public airings these days. Come to think of it, that shirt didn’t get too many airings back in the day as my dad was a copper and he’d have taken the rough end of a slipper to my harris if he’d seen me wearing it. To my mind, that shirt is far more in the true spirit of punk rock than anything Vivienne Westwood ever knocked up in the days of SEX on the King’s Road.

Back in the 70s, the choice of t-shirts on offer in the back pages of the music press seemed gloriously unlimited. In the days of the internet the choice truly is unlimited. So where to go?


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If it’s variety you’re after 8ball are hard to beat, offering a huge range of music, TV, movie and sport shirts though it’s worth bearing in mind that their website is not a stock list so some items take up to 28 days for delivery.

DJtees is quick and reliable, one of the most eclectic online selections, with everything from Kim Wilde to Captain Beefheart, Kenneth Williams to Sandy Denny up for grabs.

One of my recent finds is Bathroom Wall who specialize in extremely cool bar-room style blues shirts (Leadbelly, Little Walter, Robert Johnson). They also offer a quirkily nostalgic Bands-Before-They-Were-Famous section that includes Stiff Kittens (later Joy Division), Bazooka Joe (Adam Ant) and the charmingly-named Bastard (Motorhead).

One of the most alluring sites out there is KGB Clothing, superb designs and plenty to choose from in sections varying from hip hop, drugs, football and retro chic.

London-based Soul Tees is my current favourite. They don’t offer a huge stock (120 designs currently on offer) but you’re unlikely to find a cooler range of soul, Northern Soul, funk, reggae, ska, dub, 2-Tone, blue beat, Afro Beat and hip hop clobber. Each and every one is a thing of beauty. If you’re in search of a classic Gilbert O’Sullivan, you’ll be well fucked and far from home. Rules are rules. Class is permanent.