Cult classic: the humble T-shirt

Seemingly simple, the humble T-shirt has a stellar place in popular culture and rich history of subversion. That history is set to be explored by a new exhibition, T-shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion, which opens at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum on February 9. 

The exhibition charts the T-shirt’s journey through the 20th Century from underwear piece to luxury fashion item; tracking its dual roles as a classic wardrobe staple and symbol of rock and roll rebellion and punk. The show will feature over 100 shirts, including designs by Katherine Hamnett, Pam Hogg, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.

The T-shirt is the most simple – yet essential – piece of clothing worn worldwide. But where did this iconic piece come from, and how did it become so popular?

It began as a crew-necked, short-sleeved, white cotton undershirt to be worn under a uniform, given its name due to its “T” shape. The Army, Navy and Marines all adopted it as a standard undergarment; together with dockworkers, farmers, miners, and construction workers, who wore the lightweight fabric to keep cool in hot weather. On their return home from WW2, soldiers continued to wear the practical shirt as an everyday piece, and gradually, they gained mainstream acceptance as outer garments. 

It was the shirt’s 1951 appearance wrapped around a sweaty Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) in A Streetcar Named Desire that made it fashionably cool. His tight-fitting, bicep-caressing version sold the simple T to the movie-going masses, and there was a nation-wide spike in sales across the USA. 

In the 1960s, the shirt was adopted by women. They wore their Ts tie-dyed and screen-printed with motifs, pattern and colour, teamed with long hair, denim and beads. By the 1970s it had become a medium for commercial advertising and self-expression, allowing the wearer to subtly (and not so subtly) send messages, show their love of brands or even their political affiliation without even opening their mouths. 

Vivienne Westwood took the trend and ran with it with her politically-charged, punk-rock endorsed T-shirts; as did Katharine Hamnett during the 1980s, with her thoughtful-yet-bold slogan designs. Considered offensive at first, her 1984 “Choose Life” collection, emblazoned with ethical and political bold messages such as “Love”, “Peace”, “Ban Pollution”, “Save the Sea” in capital letters “gave her a voice”. She said, “Slogans work on so many different levels. They're tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself."

And still we can’t give up on the T. Henry Holland’s fun, tongue-in-cheek designs poked fun at the fashion industry in 2006. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s first collection for Dior in October 2017 was more political; a white T shirt with the slogan 'We should all be feminists' was a huge hit on the catwalk. Holland has since revisited the idea, while Vetements, DKNY and Alexander Wang have also included them in recent seasons.

It’s simple. People want T shirts, and fashion recognises this. The basic T is the easiest piece of  clothing – a blank screen perfect for anything. “It can be controversial, sexy, political, ironic and just plain cool” said David Sinclair.  It’s versatile and can be worn anywhere, dressed up or down. It’s affordable, inexpensive to make and purchase. No wonder, then, that – along with jeans – it remains a key element in our wardrobes.