History Lesson: White Tee

 In this series, we look into the origins of our most beloved fashion staples. From their humble beginnings to their rise to popularity, we’ll cover it all. Today, we begin with an all-time classic, the white tee.

A union suit featured in the 1902 Sears Roebuck catalog.

Although most of us will rock this piece on its own, the tee began as a piece of underwear in the early medieval period. Simple T-shaped shirts were created from wool, silk, or linen and worn between the body and outer layer for multiple purposes. The first being to protect skin from the coarser materials used in outerwear. The second, to prevent other bodily secretions from tampering with the quality of outer pieces. Mind you, the sanitary reform didn’t hit until the 19th century which paints the picture of just how rank these undergarments might have been.

Jumping up to 1868, we find a new variation of the undergarment in the form of a union suit. Much like a toddler’s onesie, union suits were a long sleeved, one piece ending right at the ankle. The most recognizable feature of this clearly-flattering-on-every-body-type underwear was the butt flap component. As fantastic as they sound, the union suit wasn’t around to stay and by the 20th century, companies like Cooper Underwear Co. (later Jockey), Fruit of the Loom, and Hanes changed the underwear scene by producing a new two piece underwear combo that consisted of a pair of long johns and a white t-shirt.

The change started in 1898 when the US Navy began issuing tees to soldiers during the Spanish American War. By 1901, Hanes, a classic white tee powerhouse, produced tees for the US Marine Corps. Due to the comfort and ease of the undergarment, service men brought them home from war for everyday wear, thus beginning their mass popularity.

White Tee in WWII via Life Magazine

By the 1950’s, the white tee took a turn from representing the clean cut, working man to being a symbol of teenage rebellion. Think of the 1955 hit movie Rebel Without A Cause, actor James Dean, in his perfect fitting t-shirt, was the epitome of angst and solidified the white tee as the unspoken uniform of teens everywhere.

Today, mass production of this piece ensure that a white tee ends up in every wardrobe. Crossing gender bounds, this once male dominated clothing item can be worn by all, only adding to it’s ever growing popularity. Down below are some brands we think do it best and maybe now knowing a little more about this favorite staple piece, you’ll think twice next time you reach for your most comfortable white tee.

Clockwise: Kinetix 4 Corners Basic Crew Tee, Man Made Apparel Brewer Roher Edge T, Richer Poorer Crew Pocket Tee

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