A COMPREHENSIVE STUDY
In less than 100 years,
the t-shirt went from being banned in public to being the height of fashion.
In less than 70 years,
the t-shirt became arguably the most toxic consumer product made.
In less than 30 years,
an American icon became a cheap import.
What's the story?
T-Shirt Fashion History: 100 Years Ago
Before 1900, the t-shirt was strictly underwear. Wearing a t-shirt in public was considered indecent. Men commonly wore "union suits" or "long johns", a one piece undergarment made from wool or cotton.
In 1904, Cooper Underwear Company (later known as Jockey) offered a new kind of men’s underwear: separate shirt and drawer pieces. Their new undershirt was called the "Bachelor Undershirt" because it didn't have buttons and so didn't require any extra sewing or maintenance.
In 1905, the US Navy adopted the t-shirt as an official garment for enlisted men. These t-shirts were to be worn under the regulation uniform to absorb sweat and to be used in training or informal settings. In the following decades, as these Navy men served their time and went back home, they brought the t-shirt with them into civilian life. The t-shirt became popular as a comfortable working shirt for workers and farmers across the country.
Men could get their t-shirt dirty and sweaty while working and then simply put on their collared shirt over the tee for a more appropriate look. Athletes and boys soon adopted the t-shirt as comfortable play wear. Oxford Dictionary claims F. Scott Fizgerald first coined the written word "t-shirt" in his novel "This Side of Paradise" in 1920. By 1932, USC was using the t-shirt as workout attire and under football uniforms.
Marlon Brando brought the t-shirt to Hollywood in 1951 in "A Street Car Named Desire". Up until this time, the formality of everyday American life forbade men from wearing a t-shirt in a public setting. But the nature of the film, "A Street Car Named Desire", was to bring the viewer inside the intimate lives of the characters. The use of the t-shirt was considered raw and gritty, as the film itself was. When James Dean was filmed and photographed in his white t-shirt, the t-shirt evolved beyond its working-class image into a more fashionable garment that could be worn in public by stylish men and brazen women. Elvis was also famously photographed in his issued white t-shirt.
That's how t-shirts became acceptable to wear in public. That's how t-shirts became cool. Now how were those t-shirts made?
T-shirts and Modern Chemicals: 70 Years Ago
The 20th century saw a revolutionary shift in the popularity and availability of chemicals for agriculture, textile dyes and consumer products. Before WWII, many farmers were de-facto organic. Agricultural chemicals were not widely available or were exorbitantly priced. Cotton was largely a chemical free crop. Since antiquity, plants like indigo and madder were used to dye clothes and by the beginning of the 20th century, many textile dyes were made in a laboratory. However, these dyes were expensive and so used sparingly on outer garments. All underwear, undershirts and t-shirts were made from white or un-dyed cotton.
During WWII, there were major breakthroughs in synthesizing and scaling chemicals. After the war, the chemical companies reformatted these chemicals into widely available and inexpensive peacetime consumer products, mainly for agricultural use and even textile dyeing. DDT, 2-4-D and many other highly toxic chemicals were sold to farmers as miracle cures for pests and weeds. Dyes that had been originally formulated in the mid 19th century were replaced by new compounds invented by chemical companies. For example, the deep red dye called alizarin was originally made from the madder plant in Ancient Egypt. Scientists first formulated alizarin as a chemical dye in a laboratory by the mid 19th century. Since 1958, the dye has largely been replaced by a new compound called quinacridone that is formulated by DuPont, a notorious agro-chemical company.
In the 1960s and 1970's, there was a growing awareness of the dangers of chemical use. Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring" and the US Environmental Protection Agency was created. Environmental regulations and consumer protection laws were passed to protect human and environmental health. Many textile companies simply did not want to adhere to the regulations or pay for safe business practices.
Textile manufacturers moved overseas to places that did not have Clean Water Acts or labor protection laws. The first wave was in the 1970s. The proceeding decades saw more and more American manufacturers move or go out of business.
T-shirts and American Manufacturing: 30 Years Ago
America once had a robust garment manufacturing industry, an industry that created the iconic American t-shirt. The t-shirts my grandparents wore were entirely grown, milled and sewn in America. There were countless cotton farms around the south, gins and mills, entire communities of people who made a decent livelihood from the garment industry. Piece by piece, American industries went out of business because they could not compete with developing regions that had little environmental regulations and no labor protection laws.
Historically, dye houses were located directly on rivers for the purpose of clean water intake and toxic wastewater ejection. Rather than clean up the process, companies simply opened dye houses in East Asia where they could use any chemicals and freely dump wastewater with reckless abandon. Labor costs in Asia were also a small fraction of what American working class wages were. The Clean Water Acts saved our drinking water. As a result, American dye houses were supposed to change their dyes and wastewater treatment processes. Instead, competitors went to Asia and American dye houses went out of business.
NAFTA and other international trade deals also affect American manufacturing. Companies that wanted to pay $0.25/hour in Bangladesh (state minimum wage in 2011) versus a fair living wage in USA, moved overseas and produced goods cheaply.
Knitting mills, weavers, spinning mills and even cotton farmers could not compete with newly formed companies in developing regions. American producers and farmers could not make their goods as cheaply because of American safe environmental regulations and fair wage laws.
Did you know?
Harvest & Mill makes t-shirts the same way they were made 100 years ago. We are an independent apparel manufacturer. Our clothes are exclusively Made in America from farm to sewing machine using organic cotton and zero chemical dyes.