The origins of the T-shirt lie somewhere in Europe amidst the hurlyburly of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that time, people's garments were made through various laborious processes by craftspeople and were thus relatively expensive; one of the reasons that street people in Victorian England looked so awful was that they simply couldn't afford to buy newer clothing for themselves, and so they continued to wear their current garments until the items started to quite literally rot away. With mechanization, all of this changed, so that clothing made from simple templates or patterns could be mass-produced in quantities sufficient to make them not only abundant, but inexpensive.
The T-shirt arose from this process due to the widespread need for a light, comfortable undergarment that was cool in the winter but provided a modicum of insulation in the summer, much like a bedsheet. The basic design - a thin, soft, lightweight item that gave free range of motion to the arms but covered the torso - evolved from this need. Cotton imported from America was found to be the ideal component for manufacturing such an item, and before long men all over the Continent were wearing them. By the 20th century, fashion consciousness had relaxed to the extent that in many cases (such as the hot summers) men would sometimes wear the shirts in public with no outer garment covering them.
When our boys went Over There during World War I, they saw how comfortable and utilitarian such a garment was to their European comrades, and imported the concept back to the States. Before long the new garment became widespread; by the Second World War it was ubiquitous. Photos of muscled G.I.'s overseas working in hot climates in nothing but their 'shirtsleeves' (i.e., nothing covering their torsos but the T-shirt itself) became common, which helped T-shirts become even more accepted in public throughout the next few years. Marlon Brando getting his shirt ripped to reveal his hunky, muscled chest in A Streetcar Named Desire didn't hurt, either; likewise the young James Dean who epitomized coolness in his patented T-shirt-and-leather-jacket look.
In the 1960's, the history of the T-shirt took a radical turn: instead of the plain, white shirt of tradition, young people began to turn theirs into more colorful fashion statements through such methods as screen-printing and that most psychedelic of coloring methods, tie-dying. Soon T-shirts across the land began to be used as miniature billboards expressing one's thoughts and desires - Make Love Not War was popular during America's VietNam conflict, for example. Rock bands found that having their fans actually wearing the band's name and logo helped spread their fame - with the added bonus that they could actually sell the crazy kids the shirt in the first place!
During the 70's, this concept became more institutionalized, as professional sports teams and others (such as tennis shoe manufacturers like Nike and Adidas) realized the value potential of having one's advertising slapped onto a youthful chest. With the release of the Star Wars phenomenon, T-shirt printing and sales reached new heights: before long millions upon millions of kids could be seen sporting Darth Vader or R2-D2 like banners of victory. Printed T-shirts became not only fun, not only expressive, but downright ubiquitous.
And that's pretty much where we stand now. Sure, the fashion of wearing a T-shirt in public tends to wax and wane in popularity, but the demand never quite disappears completely. Teenagers, especially, love the comfort, utility, and potential for smartassedness that only the lowly T-shirt can provide. So, don't be ashamed, America: whether it's Sunday afternoon or Tuesday morning, whatever the occasion, wear your undergarment proudly, as a badge of pop-cultural honor. Tell the world your message, whether you just ran into Tammy Faye at the mall, or somebody went to a popular vacation spot and all you got was this lousy - or not! - T-shirt.
Great Moments in T-Shirt History
I'm With Stupid
Stupid's With Me
Keep On Truckin'
Kurt Cobain's death certificate
The Smiley Face
Adidas (aka All Day I Dream About Sex)