An icon of the American wardrobe might have never been born without a war.

During WWl, American troops noticed French and Italian soldiers wearing a lightweight cotton undershirt in the sweltering heat of European summer days. The U.S. Army had issued scratchy wool undergarments that made life in the trenches even more unbearable. Soldiers traded their American cigarettes and Hershey's Chocolate bars for these highly coveted garments. They quickly caught on and became an indispensable article for soldiers.

The T-shirt was first seen by the American public when it was worn by heroes on the cover of LIFE Magazine (July 13, 1935), and it was first glimpsed by amazed passers-by on January 19, 1935 in the windows of Marshall Field's, a Chicago department store. Store management and the public protested! "How ludicrous and vulgar!!!" to display such skimpy clothing on a day when the worst blizzard was hitting Chicago. They demanded the display removed. But before the display could be taken down, 600 shirts had been sold. The company was called JOCKEY.

Until the 1940's the T-shirt was exclusively an undergarment seen only in the confines of one's home. It was in 1951 when the scowling, bad-boy image of Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" shocked and outraged Americans as his V-neck T-shirt was ripped off his body revealing his naked chest.

By 1955, the T-shirt was tolerated worn alone without another shirt covering it. James Dean innocently charmed movie-goers in "Rebel without a Cause". He coined the widely copied uniform of the clean white T and blue jeans, and single-handedly made the T-shirt "cool" from coast-to-coast.

In the early 60's, women made the T-shirt their symbol of rebellion and the sexual revolution. Edie Sedgwick appeared in VOGUE heralding the "Youthquake!" wearing only black tights and a white T... The T-shirt was finally chic!!!

Rock n' Roll bands in the late 60's and early 70's promoted themselves with POP ART, Tie-Dye, and Psychedelic screen-printed tees in day-glo colors. They were inexpensive, in style, and could help to make a personal or political statement. This was the beginning of "The Me Generation", the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Liberation Movement and the Gay Rights Movement.

KEEP ON TRUCKIN`, MAKE LOVE NOT WAR, HAVE A NICE DAY, BLACK POWER and the SMILEY FACE were common slogans of the times.

The T-shirt has become a canvas, a personal billboard for individual expression, and is no longer considered an ordinary undergarment.

In 1975, I was 12 years old and it was on a visit to London when I witnessed first-hand a radical shift in fashion and expression of style. Oxford Street became a "theatre" of the youth, the street became a young life and style of dressing was changed forever.

Vivienne Westwood opened her first boutique, provocatively named "SEX", on King's Road and created a ripped, torn, and safety-pinned wardrobe for an unknown band from the east end...Johnny Rotten and The Sex Pistols. The Punk Rock scene was born and burned into the minds of all who witnessed it. With her "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN" T-shirt, they galvanized the press. A "tongue-in-safety-pinned-cheek" mockery of the British monarchy. Today Vivienne Westwood is still called "The Mother of Punk".

In the 80's and 90's, T-shirts became a hot commodity in the high fashion world. With advancements in technology and new fabrications, European, American, and Japanese designers churned out high-end, luxurious versions in silks, cottons, leathers, and synthetic microfibers aimed at a new global and sophisticated clientele.

Comme des Garcons $395.00 heavy cotton T's were highly desirable...Junko Shimada's Paris boutique was a mecca for new designs and ideas...Issey Miyake did pleated polyester sculptural T'shirts in Place de Vosges...Christophe Broiche from Antwerp sold his in frames as high art...Walter Von Bierondonck allowed consumers to design their own through his elaborate cartoonish website...PriceWalton in Chicago did hi-tech heat-transfers adhered to sheer tulle net...Christian LaCroix even showed be-jeweled, and embroidered T's in the Couture.

THE FUTURE IS NOW!!! Computerized microchips hidden in seams, tiny speakers for audio, moving animation on removable plastic screens, inflatable sections that change the body's natural shape. Fabrics that regulate the body's temperature are now on the market to entertain a seemingly endless and ravenous audience.

Where will this once boring staple of every man, woman, and child lead us? Will this beloved garment experience another revival? Only time will tell. As we've recounted here, social change and our environment is reflected in how we view ourselves and the things around us. Our dress is a sign of the times.

" changes, style remains the same." - Coco Chanel


Tommy Walton is a designer based in Chicago and teacher at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.



Thirsty : January 2008 : Thirsty T-Shirt Project

Thirsty : February 2008 : Thirsty T-Shirt Project : continued


All opinions expressed by Tommy Walton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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