A Brief and Incomplete Timeline of T-Shirt History

corbis / corbis

Try this history on.

1913 - The First T-Shirt Models

White cotton, crewneck T-shirts become regulation underwear for the U.S. Navy. Two decades later, at the University of Southern California, football players don similar shirts to prevent chafing from heavy shoulder pads. The tees become so fashionable that students start pilfering them for casual wear. In response, the school begins stenciling “Property of USC” on its T-shirts as a crime-prevention tactic, not a statement of pride.

1951 - An Undershirt Named Desire

Hollywood rebel Marlon Brando exudes animal magnetism in A Streetcar Named Desire when he wears a thin, white T-shirt. Teens dig the look, and by year’s end, T-shirt sales total $180 million. But for Brando, the style is only a means to an end. A graduate of The Actors’ Studio, he’d learned to use his body to show his character’s inner turmoil. The T-shirt is only a thin veil, meant to cover not only his rippling physique, but also his character’s bestial urges.

1969 - Tie-Dyed Shirts Become Groovy

For decades, the only people using Rit dye were old women who wanted to color their drapes and linens. But in the mid-1960s, advertising whiz Don Price markets the dye to hippies, who use it to tie-dye their tees. But Price’s real stroke of genius comes in 1969, when he produces hundreds of the shirts and gives them away to performers at Woodstock. The multicolored tops are quickly adopted as part of the counterculture uniform.

1977 - I ♥ NY

Throughout the 1970s, New York City gains a reputation as a tourists’ nightmare—dirty, decadent, and crime-ridden. To revitalize the city’s image, the Commerce Department hires designer Milton Glaser to fashion an eye-catching logo for the city. Over lunch one day, Glaser sketches “I ♥ NY” on a napkin. The logo spearheads a resurgence in New York tourism and becomes the most imitated T-shirt design in history. Glaser claims that the shirt’s appeal comes from decoding the symbols: “You feel smart when you figure it out.”

1984 - Frankie Learns to Talk


BBC radio bans the song “Relax” by the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, claiming that the lyrics are too explicitly sexual. Naturally, sales of the single skyrocket, and the song goes to No. 1. To flaunt the band’s triumph over censorship, record label owner Paul Morley puts the song’s words in big capital letters on T-shirts. The “FRANKIE SAY RELAX” tees turn millions of music fans into human billboards. Soon, Frankie knock-offs are everywhere. Although the band’s popularity quickly dies, the T-shirt lives on, appearing on the torsos of everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Homer Simpson.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise stated. 

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.