Editorial Feature

The Surprising History of the White T-shirt

Michelle Fisher, Curatorial Assistant at MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design, on the surprising story woven into this everyday item

Bruce Springsteen performs as the archetypal working-class everyman in his. James Dean embodied postwar rebellion and Sugar Ray Robinson was fight-ready in it. Harry Belafonte was smooth and Grease’s Danny Zuko sexy, and Elvis showed up to report for the draft wearing one. Madonna, Brooke Shields, and Brigitte Bardot played both virgin and vixen in theirs; Kurt Cobain paired his with flannel to cement grunge style; and Salt-N-Pepa cut theirs at the midriff. Today, skaters line up down the block to purchase theirs when streetwear labels like Supreme collaborate with brands like Hanes.

Man in sunglasses smoking, 1959, Bruce Davidson (From the collection of Carnegie Hall)

From humble origins as an undergarment, to mass-produced fast-fashion staple, to highly collectible (and highly priced) commodity, the white T-shirt is a quintessential product of twentieth-century modernity and the ultimate sartorial and psychological blank canvas. As Vogue’s Laird Borrelli-Persson summed it up, “Its very plainness, after all, leaves room for self invention, the root of the American dream.”

Much like the denim jean, over the last seventy years the white T-shirt has emerged across cultures, classes, styles, and identities as a classic, unisex wardrobe garment. Given its ubiquity, the item also serves—willingly or otherwise—as a conduit for conversations about some of the most pressing issues that the field of fashion and society at large confront today, including fair labor practices and the environmental toll of processing raw materials such as cotton into garments (the fashion industry is often quoted as the second—but in reality closer to the fifth—most polluting worldwide after oil).

Australian Cotton, 2016 (From the collection of the Australian Fashion Chamber)
Supreme Quality Superfine T-Shirt and Cotton Plant, 2016 (From the British Fashion Council collection)

These nuances are driven home by filmmaker Martin de Thurah’s short, looped video of a young woman wandering the streets of Berlin clad in multiple white T-shirts. Meandering aimlessly along the sidewalk, her journey soundtracked by the hum of city traffic, she pulls T-shirts above her head and over her shoulders one after the other, and unceremoniously discards them behind her. In MoMA’s current exhibition, Items: Is Fashion Modern?, de Thurah’s work is positioned just outside the final gallery where visitors encounter it after seeing the white T-shirt (one of the 111 fashion design typologies explored in the exhibition) and just before Giorgia Lupi’s wonderful data visualization that spans three walls and asks visitors to contemplate the effects of their consumption of clothing on the world around them. His film is a subtle, non-didactic reminder to consider our relationship to the wearing and discarding of clothing, as well as dreamy, enigmatic choreography that reminds us of the many layers of the white T-shirt's history.

Stories by Martin de Thurah

Origins in medieval underwear

Like with other clothing items (the slip dress, for example), the genesis of the white T-shirt lies in undergarments. From the early medieval period onward, simple T-shaped shirts of wool, linen, or silk were prevalent. Front and back sections were joined by seams at the shoulders and sides, the fineness of fabric dependent on the socio-economic status of the wearer and the length of hem and cuffs dependent on the prevailing style. Such protective under layers ensured that coarser outer garments did not irritate the skin, and that daily bodily effluents did not soil finely woven top layers. Given Christianized associations of the body and its secretions as sinful, when this mediating barrier was displayed publically, it symbolized humility.

Joan of Arc at Domrémy, 1870/1872, by Henri Chapu (From the collection of Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

With the advent of dress and sanitary reform in the nineteenth century, undergarments became more frequently laundered, and thus the archetypes of the white T-shirt helped form what Shaun Cole calls, “the habits of organizing and meaning of laundering” that exist today. The Industrial Revolution, as well as the colonial and protectionist trade in its raw materials—including slave labor—secured mass dissemination of cotton products.

Children of Delta and Pine Company African American sharecropper Lonnie Fair's family picking cotton on their 22 acre farm (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

A sexy navy staple

It was at the turn of the twentieth century that companies such as Cooper’s (later Jockey), Hanes, and Fruit of the Loom bisected the union suit (a mid-nineteenth-century underwear invention), creating long johns on the bottom and an undershirt on top. The latter were issued by the US Navy during the Spanish-American war in 1898, with Hanes beginning to produce cotton T-shirts for the US Marine Corps shortly after, in 1901. Companies also marketed these undergarments for the general citizenry using strangely ambiguous rhetoric that played up the garment’s comfort, construction, and ease of maintenance, focusing on the image of the virile, heteronormative soldier or dad on one hand, while performing a parallel function as a homoerotic signifier of the taut male torso on the other.

Us Navy, 1941, Peter Stackpole (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Tees and teen rebellion

The white T-shirt was also a garment that rebellious teenage youth could customize to suit their needs and identities—preppy, subversive, conservative, collective—whether by adding to its surface or pairing with other parts of an ensemble. By the time that actor Marlon Brando smoldered in his in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, his muscular arms accentuated by its taut, crisp outline, its ascendancy in the mainstream was assured.

A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947, Eliot Elisofon (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

From the streets to the catwalk

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the blank canvas was assimilated as part of fashion’s lexicon, also becoming a foundation for customized branding and personal expression. In 1991 Karl Lagerfeld paired Chanel’s signature tweed cardigan jackets over white T-shirts, juxtaposing high fashion and humble masterpiece—the simple garment serving as a perfect foil to highlight the iconic textured silhouette. The item has also been imbricated in hip-hop and normcore, where box-fresh tees are part of pristine ensembles. Designer Mary Ping’s compelling White T-shirt Project investigates the many modalities and materialities of its eponymous garment, cherishing each possibility as a way of reconsidering a familiar item.

Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, 1991 / 1994 (From the collection of The Museum at FIT)

The shirt becomes a symbol

In the twenty-first century, the white T-shirt has become emblematic of the concerns about ethical and ecological implications of rapid global manufacturing and distribution in the fashion industry. Companies such as Everlane, American Apparel, Pact, Patagonia, and more have thus taken the white T-shirt as the basis for pursuing “B Corporation” identities—better practices to benefit all stakeholders. Thus, the item is both the apogee and rejection of early twentieth-century philosopher Walter Benjamin’s conception of the mass-produced object; its infinite reproducibility allows us to affordably, and easily, have it in our wardrobes, but the memories and associations woven into the 'favorite' (white) T-shirt prevent its disposability. It's this contradiction that makes the white T-shirt such a powerful symbol of our times.

White T-Shirt (From the collection of the British Fashion Council)

Story adapted from the catalogue of Items: Is Fashion Modern?, edited by Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher.

Items: Is Fashion Modern? opens at MoMA on October 1, 2017 and runs until January 28, 2018.

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