In 1904, 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 and no sewing skills. Someone in the U.S. Navy must have seen the logic in this, because the following year, the quartermaster’s office specified that sailors should wear undershirts with no buttons under their uniforms; soon thousands of men became acquainted with the comfort of the cotton pullover.
Though the Cooper Underwear Company popularized the crew-neck shirt, they did not invent the style. The shirts evolved out of the long johns that men wore in the 19th century, when a number of garment makers experimented with methods that would allow the fabric to stretch over the head and then snap back into shape.
In the 1890s, the cotton pullover still looked like underwear to most people and wearing it in public was considered scandalous.
Lawmakers in Havana went so far as to ban the public display of any underwearlike top, and so laborers had to toil in the heat wearing long-sleeve shirts with buttons.
But gradually, the crew-neck caught on. In 1920, the garment was reborn under another name, thanks partly to F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the author was the first to use the word “T-shirt” in print; it appears in the novel “This Side of Paradise,” in a list of accouterments that a character carries with him to boarding school. Fitzgerald seems to have assumed that the idea of a “T-shirt” (so named, presumably, because of the shirt’s shape) would be familiar to readers and that they would associate it with the “white-flannelled, bareheaded youths” of New England prep schools.
By the 1940s, T-shirts had become ubiquitous in high schools. A newspaper columnist named Nancy Pepper wrote that teenagers owned closets full of T-shirts and customized them with sew-on patches and fringe. She reported that some high-school boys even used their T-shirts to advertise that they were available for make-out sessions; around the necklines of their shirts, the boys inscribed the words, “Neck here.”
Jacques Van Gool is the owner of Backstage Auctions, an online auction house that specializes in rock memorabilia.
Do you sell a lot of T-shirts? Yes, T-shirts have become legitimate collectors’ items. I’ll never forget when Jennifer Aniston put on an MC5 shirt.
Did you suddenly see a jump in sales or auction prices when that happened? Absolutely. Keep in mind, it’s not unusual to see a 1970s shirt for as little as $25. But you also find them for $1,000. Some of the most desirable shirts to collect are shirts that were exclusively made by the promoter for the staff that was working a specific concert. Let’s say the Academy of Music in New York in 1974 had a show with Alice Cooper and the promoter printed up 30 shirts just for the staff. Obviously that shirt is valuable.