And the pretty cool T-Shirt history . . .

James Dean wearing custom T shirt

From Queen Victoria to James Dean

"T-Shirt" first appeared in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary in the 1920's. One colorful myth credits their origin to the 1850's British Royal Navy. At the time, their uniforms included a sleeveless, heavy wool undergarment similar to a tank top. As the story goes, Queen Victoria arrived unannounced for an inspection and the men were ordered to quickly sew sleeves onto their shirts to spare the queen the sight of their hairy underarms. Another, and perhaps more sober account, traces their origin to 1853, when the Union Underwear Company of Bowling Green, Kentucky, first separated the one piece wool button-up "Union Suit" into tops and bottoms. The tops quickly became popular among miners working in the gold and silver mines of the American west. Taking a cue from these miners, the U.S. Navy issued a button-less wool version as an undergarment during the Spanish-American War. However, the light weight cotton version is attributed to early 1900's advances in European fabric manufacturing. The American Expeditionary Forces sent to France during World War I in regulation long-sleeved wool undershirts, returned home in the lightweight cotton undershirts of their European counterparts. Named the for their outline, the Union Underwear Company began manufacturing their light weight cotton T-Shirts in 1931, and by the Great Depression, they had become, by far, the most common garment to do chores in. Just prior to World War II, both the Army and Navy  began issuing light weight versions with their uniforms. Given their comfort, ease of cleaning, and relative low cost, T-Shirts also quickly became the shirt of choice for mothers to dress their young boys in. The transition from under, to acceptable adult outer wear, began when veterans returning from World War II often wore their uniform trousers with T-Shirts as casual wear. Outside of the military, though, the practice of wearing T-Shirts as outerwear was deemed inappropriate until Hollywood got involved with Marlon Brando wearing one as outer-wear in the 1951 movie "A Streetcar Named Desire." T-Shirts as a fashion statement arguably received their biggest boost when James Dean made them an iconic symbol of rebellious youth in the 1955 movie "Rebel Without A Cause." 

Any T-Shirt history would be remiss without mentioning the various versions of the T-Shirt that have since been developed. These include the tank top, the A-Shirt (nicknamed the "wife beater"), the Muscle Shirt, the Scoop Neck, and the V-Neck. Hip hop has a "Tall-T" version that extends to the knees. And let's not forget the tight-fitting, waistline revealing, "cropped" T-Shirts that became a women's fashion trend in the 1990's.

In the 1940's, 100% of the Union Underwear Company T-Shirts were produced for under garment wear, today 80% of their T-shirts are produced as outer-wear, with most of their stock going to screen-printers. And now for the various methods of decorating apparel and  t shirt printing . . . 


The Printed Tee

T-Shirts today are perhaps as widely known as a means to express a statement as they are a garment to cover one's body. Printing on garments can be traced back to 2500 B.C. when a Chinese merchant capitalized on the then-current trend of decorating robes when he used "stenciling" to decorate his line. Although the origin of the printed shirt  is a bit vague, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY has an 1860 photograph of the Brooklyn Atlantics with baseball bat emblems on their uniforms. The Champion company received its first order for printed T-shirts from an Ann Arbor, Michigan sport shop in 1933. Whether or not these University of Michigan T-shirts were the first-ever printed "Tees," they are, in fact, the earliest known example of printed T-Shirts sold as a retail item. The first use of T-shirts as an advertising medium dates back to the late 1930's "Wizard of Oz" T-Shirts that are perhaps the most sought after item among T-Shirt collector's today. These T-Shirts were, however, only available in children sizes, since, aside from the military, T-shirts were not yet considered appropriate adult outer-wear. Davy Crockett and Roy Rogers child-size T-Shirts were printed in the 1940's and Champion acquired the rights to produce a pint-size Joe DiMaggio shirt in 1947. The earliest political T-Shirt in the Smithsonian collection is a "Dew it with Dewey" T-Shirt printed during the 1948 Truman-Dewey presidential race, but even that shirt was produced only in children sizes. It was Marlon Brando's 1951 movie "A Streetcar Named Desire," in which he appears in a T-shirt throughout, that marked the start of society's acceptance of T-Shirts as adult outer-wear. Spider and Ed Roth (creators of the "Rat Fink" character) credit the first popular wave of customized printed T-Shirts to the drag-racing culture of the 1950's. However, it  was the 1960's development of plastisol (a durable and stretchable ink) that allowed for the meteoric rise in the popularity of printed T-Shirts. Among the early pioneers of the printed "T" is the Tropix Togs company which acquired the first license to produce T-Shirts of Walt Disney characters Mickey Mouse and Davy Crockett. By the mid 1960's, The Monster Company in Mill Valley, California, were producing fine-art designs, along with T-Shirts featuring the Grateful Dead and the marijuana sub-culture. One of the most popular images of the turbulent 1960's is the silk-screened T-Shirt of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. By the late 1960's, between tie dying, screen printing, and the anti-war movement, the American T-shirt industry exploded. Rock and Roll bands soon realized that they could make significant money selling their printed T-shirts and professional sports quickly jumped aboard. In 1975 more than 200,000 T-Shirts were produced to promote the film, "Jaws." The next year a Farrah Faucet series was created that sold millions. Screen printed T-Shirts have been a standard form of marketing for major companies since the 1970's. During the 1980's and 1990's, designer-name logos were popular, allowing wearers to express their taste for designer brands without spending a lot of money. Since the 1990's, T-Shirts have been part of the overall advertising strategies for companies large and small. From President Obama's "Hope" T-shirt to humorous messages like "my parents went to Las Vegas and all I got was this lousy T-shirt," the political and social statements that T-shirts display have elevated the garment to a position of great social importance. While many T-Shirt statements are designed for their shock value, the statement-making trend is now entrenched throughout society, from chain stores to universities, and from bars to churches.


Printing techniques

Screen-printing is the most common technique used in T-Shirt decoration. Designs are separated into individual colors and Plastisol or water based inks are used to transfer the design onto the garment. Other methods are tie dye, airbrush, applique, embroidery, embossing, and the ironing on of either flock lettering, heat transfers, or dye-sublimation transfers. Laser printers can print on plain paper with a special toner of sublimation dyes which are then permanently heat-transferred to the T-shirt. In the 1980's, thermochromatic dyes made it possible to produce T-Shirts that changed color depending on the temperature. These were common in the UK for a few years, but popularity has since waned. The downside of these color-change garments is that the dyes are easily damaged by washing in warm water or with other traditionally-dyed clothing. In the internet age, ordering T-Shirts with customized designs online has become very fashionable. Websites using digital printing (such as Direct to Garment) enable customers to design T-Shirts with no minimum order.


Each and every T-Shirt that The Utica Custom T-Shirt Company produces is proudly created with this rich and colorful history in mind.


You can call us @ 315/731-7845.