T-shirts began (most probably) in the British Isles, although they have come a long way from their humble origins as basic garments for work. Glamorized by Hollywood and refreshed by the internet revolution, t-shirts are worn by people everywhere, from the catwalk to the mosh pit, from babies to football supporters, a t-shirt is a key part of nearly everyone’s wardrobe.
T-shirts most probably originated in the British navy. It is often thought that t-shirts were first worn by sailors who wore a simple garment without buttons and with short sleeves while working their ships. These white cotton shirts were called ‘tackle shirts’, were relatively cheap to buy, were durable and easy to clean. They could also be easily stored in the cramped conditions aboard ship. These early t-shirts quickly became an integral part of the sailor’s uniform in the Royal Navy, and were very handy for keeping things looking sharp when a royal inspection was underway. No-one, least of all Queen Victoria, wanted to be confronted by an unruly row of hairy chests!
Others think that t-shirts originated in the English stately homes of the 19th century and were used by servants serving tea. Tea spillages can leave a nasty stain so some believe that short sleeved shirts were used to avoid ruining long-armed shirts, hence the name ‘t’ shirts. If true, one feels for the poor servants and their sore arms!
But it wasn’t until the end of the second world war and the iconic films of the 1950s that the humble t-shirt became a fashion statement. American soldiers brought the ‘t-shirts and jeans’ look to Europe, and two famous actors popularized the combination: Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan's “A streetcar named desire” (1951) and James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955).
At the end of the 20th century, the t-shirt industry was revolutionized once again, but this time by the internet. The first online companies allowed consumers from all over the world to buy t-shirts online and even customise them with their own graphics, images and messages.
The most common form of commercial t-shirt printing is screen-printing. In screen-printing, a design is separated into individual colours and water-based inks or plastisols are applied to the shirt through a so-called mesh screen that limits the areas where ink is deposited.
Other t-shirt printing techniques include the ironing and embossing of flex and flock foils, dye sublimation and embroidery.
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