In 2009 American photographer Susan Barnett began her decade-long project, Not in Your Face, photographing people around the world wearing graphic and slogan T-shirts. The portraits are always taken from behind so that the images or text emblazoned across the backs of the T-shirts become a stand in for their wearers’ faces to tell us who they are. “They tell us who these people are and who they aren’t, who they want to be and what they want us to know about them,” Barnett says. “They advertise their hopes, ideals, dislikes, or political views.”
Over their history, T-shirts have become signifiers of identity: they reveal what music moves you, what sports teams you cheer for, what politics you stand for, what makes you laugh or where you’ve been on holiday. But the T-shirt wasn’t always the outward reflection of personality and style that it is today. It began quite literally undercover.
Towards the end of the 19th century in the US, women and men wore deeply unattractive button-up onesie-type underwear called a union suit. Surely cosy in cold winter months, the garment became impractical for warmer conditions and so the one piece became two when people began cutting them in half at the waist to become ‘long johns’; the top half becoming a precursor to the T-shirt. During the 19th century, manufacturers of the undergarments began experimenting with stretchy fabrics to make the pieces more comfortable, and also button-less as this way you could just pull the top over your head and the collar would bounce back into shape.
Grabbing the opportunity, in 1904 the Cooper Underwear Company started to market these comfortable, button-less tops to single men as ‘bachelor undershirts’. About a year later the US Navy made this white cotton undershirt an official part of the uniform followed by the US Army who did the same during World War I. The item spread to all kinds of industry from farmers to mechanics to miners and in 1920, it was eventually named the T-shirt in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s novel This Side of Paradise. In 1932, Jockey International Inc created the crew-neck T-shirt for the football players of the University of South California to wear underneath their pads to save them from chafing. The style became a hit among students of the day.
Worn as outerwear by high schoolers and university students who would customise them with sew-on patches and fringe, T-shirts were only really accepted in the light of day when soldiers returning from World War II began wearing them casually in the ‘40s. And Marlon Brando sealed the deal in 1951 wearing a muscle-skimming tee in his role as Stanley Kowalski in A Street Car Named Desire causing a nationwide surge in sales.
T-shirt printing became popular in the ‘50s in Miami with some of the first graphic tees sporting Mickey Mouse after Disneyland opened in the mid-fifties. As screen-printing evolved, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, T-shirts found a natural home as music merch, seeing the dawn of the iconic rock tee. The era also brought with it a psychedelic fest of tie dye, affiliations with counter-culture and the T-shirt as wearable political placard especially with regard to anti-Vietnam war sentiment. In 1973 The New York Times named the T-shirt ‘the medium for the message’ as the punk-wave hit Britain which Vivienne Westwood rode in on brandishing graphic T-shirts meant to shock and shake up the status quo with overt political messages. Once the T-shirt had been firmly established as a medium for self-expression there was no ever going back.
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