Daily Tedium

Our Lives In Fabric

How T-shirts, those bastions of cotton, became the perfect way to wear our feelings, along with the easiest way to get dressed in the morning.

By Ernie Smith

When Amory Blaine decided to pack a T-shirt before heading to boarding school, he set in place a piece of literary history. Amory, the protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, was the first literary character to use a T-shirt, ever.

“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,” the passage states.

It’s small, a modest scene-setter, but one that has had a lot of cultural impact since, and while the fabric, once called the “crew-neck,” had some historic precedent in the late 19th century, it didn’t really take off until the U.S. Navy started handing them out in 1913—a modest undershirt that eventually defined the way we dress.

Air Corps Gunnery School

Soon enough, the military’s interest in these shirts led to stuff being printed on them, with a notable early example coming in 1942, when Life magazine featured 23-year-old Corporal Alexander Le Gerda wearing a shirt that said “Air Corps Gunnery School, Las Vegas, Nevada.” (Clearly there was a gun there, too, but we're focused on the shirt, which is shockingly still for sale.)

From there, interest when far beyond the military. Soon, you had pop-culture icons trying them on for size (James Dean, Elvis, etc.), and eventually merchandising them like crazy, as The Beatles did in 1964.

But perhaps the real turning point for printing stuff on shirts came in 1960, when Michael Vasilantone came up with a process for mass-producing screen-printed T-shirts, designing some of the most important technology in that general direction and selling it with his wife Fannie, under the name Vastex International. He didn’t need to print the shirts—he had the machinery.

“I was printing as a hobby, but the machinery was a very integral part of the business,” Vasilantone recalled in a 1990 article in the Hazleton, Pennsylvania, Standard-Speaker. “It forced me to develop the machinery. I found I could make more money making the machines than printing. I developed equipment that was badly needed.”

From there, we got newer, better technology, dropped the tags, and had some depressing CafePress memories that are best forgotten about, and now we’re here, in an era when alternative rockers sell more T-shirts than albums.

We just needed the right name for these magical cotton devices. Hence, the T-shirt.

By the way, it’s worth noting that until May 11, we’re selling some T-shirts, along with other gear, to support Tedium! Learn more here.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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