A style icon with history: The White T-Shirt.

SANVT Journal

It is impossible to imagine a complete wardrobe without it. It’s the clothing of our childhood, of our weekends, of early mornings lounging around the house to nights out with friends. It’s our second skin. It’s the T-Shirt. SANVT was borne from a desire to find the perfect T-Shirt. In this vein we want to pay our respects to the blessed tee and give you a full history of the perfect T-Shirt.

Early Days: From uniform to sportswear

The T-Shirt is traditionally defined as a garment with short sleeves, a round neckline, no collar, pockets or buttons. Its name quite obviously comes from its shape, reminiscent of the letter “T”.

The invention of commercial knitting machines by the English inventor William Cotton in 1864 brought the T-Shirt to the masses. At this time, paid holidays and weekends were introduced, marking the need for comfortable clothing for workers to wear on their off days. In 1901, P. Hanes Knitting Company launched a two-piece underwear set that looked very similar to today’s white T-Shirt. The set was worn by soldiers during World War I as underwear. The original tee was seen exclusively as underwear, which meant wearing it in public was liable to cause a scene.

In 1913, the U.S. Navy adopted the white T-Shirt as the premiere light garment for its sailors. Recruits were thrilled to replace heavy wool clothing with a crisp 100% cotton tee, and the Navy found the light shirts far more suitable to their needs. They were light, airy, didn’t take much space in storage and doubled as a towel.

The arrival of paid leave created a de facto cult of sports and leisure, with more and more people favouring thin cotton shirts to formal wear. American sports teams began to tag T-Shirts with athletes’ names and numbers to distinguish them, which quickly became commonplace among supporters of the clubs.

But this was all for men. Women were allegedly wearing traditional T-Shirts in secret since the 1920s, but only in World War II, when clothing started breaking gender expectations, did they start to become considered normal attire for women. In 1945, the Sears catalogue showed T-Shirts aimed at women for sale.

1950s & ’60s: From style icon to blockbuster…

However, the real breakthrough of the history of the white T-Shirt started in the 1950s, when Marlon Brando wore the iconic white garment in a Streetcar named Desire and James Dean revolutionized the style of a whole generation in Rebel Without a Cause.

With the endorsement from two of Hollywood’s greatest icons, the T-Shirt became a symbol of rebellion and nonconformity. As the 50s moved into the 60s, the tee became a staple with anti-establishment hippies and counterculture agitators.

Kings of Cool: James Dean, Paul Newman & Don Johnson.

1970s: Powerful messaging & self-expression

What is almost considered cringe now, but back then was the beginning of a trend that would help the T-Shirt become as profitable as it is today, is graphic tees. While printing began in the 1950s & '60s, T-Shirts became a staple for powerful messaging in the '70s, having been considered a 'blank canvas' for self-expression. Everything from political statements to band logos were worn.

1980s: Casual elegance

By the 1980s the T-Shirt was just another garment, worn by everybody from fashionistas to dorky dads. In the iconic TV series Miami Vice, Don Johnson aka James “Sonny” Crockett championed the relaxed and casual look of a plain T-Shirt, often white and worn under a summery blazer.

Today: A T-Shirt that is better made

In its brief history, the white T-Shirt rose from underwear to fashion statement to pandemic cultural hegemony. From uniformity to individuality, from not-to-be-seen to loud invocation of pride. And into today, there’s hardly an occasion that would decline the perfectly refined style of the T-Shirt. This inspired SANVT to go out and search for this perfection. SANVT revolutionises the traditional sizing of T-Shirts.

The Perfect T-Shirt is responsibly crafted in Portugal and made exclusively from one of the finest natural materials: 100% single-source extra-long staple cotton.