A Brief History of Tees

I’ve always thought of the T-shirt as the Alpha and Omega of the fashion alphabet.

Giorgio Armani


Having started a company that makes slogan tees, I began to wonder how this ubiquitous garment, worn by people of all persuasions around the world, came into being. So here you go – a brief history of the simple T-shirt.

What we now think of as the most effortless of wardrobe staples began life somewhere in the late 19th century having evolved from a single union suit, or what you and I would think of as long johns for the working man (and woman). In the extreme heat of summer, workers began to cut their union suits in two and thus, the undershirt was born.

They proved popular, and, from there, Bachelor Undershirts were first advertised in 1904 promising ‘No safety pins – no buttons – no needle – no thread”, aimed at single men lacking both wives and basic skills. 

The US Navy then adopted the T-shirt as a staple that could be worn under uniforms with the uniform jacket being removed when working to keep it clean. Other branches of the armed forces, factory and agricultural workers soon followed suit.  

Cheap, easily fitted, easy to clean and mend it was the choice for men and boys everywhere eventually becoming seen as casual clothing rather than underwear.

But it took until 1920 for the garment to be officially renamed when F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the phrase ‘T-shirt’ in his novel, This Side of Paradise,

“So early in September Amory, provided with ‘six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T-shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc,’ set out for New England, the land of schools.”

Many claim that a cover of Life magazine featuring a military T-shirt was the starting point in 1942 for all graphic tees, but that’s probably overstating it.  By this stage, graphic tees were common amongst the military, sports teams and other organisations.

But then, with Brando and Dean - the OGs of the stand alone, plain white tee - the T-shirt became a bona fide symbol of rebellion and sex appeal. Underwear became outerwear in a statement of fashion intent. Of course, women began to blaze their own trail.  


The popularity of T-shirts soared in the 50s and 60s and graphic tees became a platform for self-expression and protest and less of a walking advert for manufacturers. Teenage tie-dyers splashed a multi-coloured ‘Up Yours!’ over the buttoned-up conservatism of their parents. Innovations in printing, such as screenprinting meant that bold, bright tees could be mass produced.

The T-shirt has been a political platform for decades now, when Maria Grazia Chiuri sent her ‘We should all be feminists’ T-shirt down the Dior catwalk in 2016, she was following in the footsteps of British greats. Vivienne Westwood used it as a punk canvas in the 1970s and, in the 80s, Katharine Hamnett confronted Margaret Thatcher wearing a T-shirt as a political billboard. Lemonpeelers, please note that Dior’s £490 tee was produced in Mauritian sweatshops by women earning 62p an hour. Sometimes, the message is just wrong.

So, what’s the secret to the success of the T-shirt? Well, utility and comfort for sure, but a basic tee is also a blank canvas.  There are no distractions with a T-shirt. You can project what you want onto it and it remains a key element of what’s quintessentially, casually cool. 

Lemonpeel T-shirts are produced in limited quantities whilst guaranteeing ethical manufacture. Lemonpeel represents the slow fashion movement with small collections of beautifully designed, classic T-shirts made to love and to last. 

So, no matter how you style it, casual or couture, the Lemonpeel T-shirt is a fashion staple that here to stay.