Simple, Round Neck shaped top garments have been a part of human clothing since ancient times; garments similar to the T-shirt worn earlier in history are generally called tunics.
The modern T-shirt evolved from undergarments used in the 19th century. First, the one-piece union suit underwear was cut into separate top and bottom garments, with the top long enough to tuck under the waistband of the bottoms. With and without buttons, they were adopted by miners and stevedores during the late 19th century as a convenient covering for hot environments.
As slip-on garments without buttons, the earliest T-shirt dates back to sometime between the 1898 Spanish–American War and 1904, when the Cooper Underwear Company ran a magazine ad announcing a new product for bachelors. In the “before” photo, a man averts his eyes from the camera as if embarrassed; he has lost all the buttons on his undershirt and has safety-pinned its flaps together. In the “after” photo, a virile gentleman sports a handlebar mustache, smokes a cigar and wears a “bachelor undershirt” stretchy enough to be pulled over the head. “No safety pins — no buttons — no needle — no thread”, ran the slogan aimed at men with no wives who lacked sewing skills.
Since the 1960s, T-shirts have flourished as a form of personal expression. Screen printed T-shirts have been a standard form of marketing for major American consumer products, such as Coca-Cola and Mickey Mouse, since the 1970s. It has also been commonly used to commemorate an event or to make a political or personal statement. Since the 1990s, it has become common practice for companies of all sizes to produce T-shirts with their corporate logos or messages as part of their overall advertising campaigns. Since the late 1980s and especially the 1990s, T-shirts with prominent designer-name logos have become popular, especially with teenagers and young adults. These garments allow consumers to flaunt their taste for designer brands in an inexpensive way, in addition to being decorative. Examples of designer T-shirt branding include Calvin Klein, FUBU, Ralph Lauren, American Apparel, and The Gap. These examples also include representations of rock bands, among other obscure pop-culture references. Licensed T-shirts are also extremely popular. Movie and TV T-shirts can have images of the actors, logos, and funny quotations from the movie or TV show. Often, the most popular T-shirts are those that characters wore in the film itself (e.g., Bubba Gump from Forrest Gump and Vote For Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite).
Designer Katharine Hamnett, in the early 1980s, pioneered outsize T-shirts with large-print slogans. The early first decade of the 21st century saw the renewed popularity of T-shirts with slogans and designs with a strong inclination to the humorous and/or ironic. The trend has only increased later in this decade, embraced by celebrities, such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, and reflected back on them, too (‘Team Aniston’). The political and social statements that T-shirts often display have become, since the first decade of the 21st century, one of the reasons that they have so deeply permeated different levels of culture and society. The statements also may be found to be offensive, shocking, or pornographic to some. Examples of T-shirt stores and designers known for using offensive and shocking messages include T-Shirt Hell and Apollo Braun. Many different organizations have caught on to the statement-making trend, including chain and independent stores, websites, and schools.
A popular phrase on the front of demonstrating the popularity of T-shirts among tourists is the humorous phrase “I went to _____ and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” Examples include “My parents went to Las Vegas and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” T-shirt exchange is an activity where people trade the T-shirts that they are wearing.
Artists like Bill Beckley, Glen Baldridge and Peter Klashorst use T-shirts in their work. Models such as Victoria Beckham and Gisele Bundchen wore T-shirts through the 2000s. Paris Fashion Week 2014 featured a grunge style T-shirt.
A V-neck T-shirt has a V-shaped neckline, as opposed to the round neckline of the more common crew neck shirt (also called a U-neck). V-necks were introduced so that the neckline of the shirt does not show when worn beneath an outer shirt, as would that of a crew neck shirt.
The most common form of commercial T-shirt decoration is screen printing. In screen printing, a design is separated into individual colors. Plastisol or water based inks are applied to the shirt through mesh screens which limits the areas where ink is deposited. In most commercial T-shirt printing, the specific colors in the design are used. To achieve a wider color spectrum with a limited number of colors, process printing (using only cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink) or simulated process (using only white, black, red, green, blue, and gold ink) is effective. Process printing is best suited for light colored shirts. The simulated process is best suited for dark colored shirts.
In 1959, the invention of plastisol provided an ink more durable and stretchable than water-based ink, allowing much more variety in T-shirt designs. Very few companies continue to use water-based inks on their shirts. The majority of companies that create shirts prefer plastisol due to the ability to print on varying colors without the need for color adjustment at the art level.
Specialty inks trend in and out of fashion and include shimmer, puff, discharge, and chino based inks. A metallic foil can be heat pressed and stamped onto any plastisol ink. When combined with shimmer ink, metallics give a mirror like effect wherever the previously screened plastisol ink was applied. Specialty inks are more expensive to purchase as well as screen and tend to appear on garments in boutiques.
Other methods of decoration used on T-shirts include airbrush, applique, embroidery, impressing or embossing, and the ironing on of either flock lettering, heat transfers, or dye-sublimation transfers. Laser printers are capable of printing on plain paper using a special toner containing sublimation dyes which can then be permanently heat-transferred to T-shirts.