Boys' "T"-Shirts

Figure 1.-- This photo shows the children in grade 3 at Jefferson School in West Allis, Wisconsin during 1953. Notice that several boys wear sripped "t" shirts. One boy wears a Hopalong Cassiy "t"-shirt. Notice the boys' short hair cuts.

"T"-shirts and jeans are some of the most commonly worn clothes worn by modern boys. In is interesting to note that neither were commonly worn by American boys until after the Second World War (1945). Until the 1940s boys almost always wore shirts with collars, although collar styles had changed greatly over the years. These clothes did not reach Europe and Engand until the 1960s-70s. T-shirts became popular in America during the 1940s. The inital ones had bright horizontal stripes. There were both short and long sleeved styles. There popularity gradually spread overseas. During the 1970s it became stylish to put logos on T-shirts. At first sport logos were popular. Corporate logo followed as did logos with social or a variety of other messages.


HBC believes that the modern "T"-shirt first appeared as underwear. I am not sure, however, just when this was. I believe it was precceded by the tank-top type sleeveless underwear. Some HBC contributors remember wearing these as boys. One HBC contributor remembers that as a boy in the 1950s, my first undershirts were sleeveless undershirts, much like Dad wore. About 1960 or so, I began to wear the modern white sleeved T shirt. Most of my friends also wore them." Another HBC contributor who grew up in the 1940s and 50s, remembers his dad wearing the sleeveless style, but he and his friends all wore "T"-shirts. HBC is unsure why this destinction developed. Probably it was a utilitarian matter. It was convenient having a shirt a boy could wear with or without a collared shirt. Men were expected at the time to wear a collared shirt, so a sleevless style undershirt made more sence--especially during the summer.


HBC had thought that the "T" shirt was an American style. We have noted it being worn in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, but usually under another shirt--especially a middy blouse. We are not sure just how these developments in Europe may have influenced the development iof the American "T-shirt. A HBC reader also speculates on the Euroopean origins of the "T"-shirt. He writes, "In my explorations of European websites with old pictures, I've found that European boys started wearing striped t-shirts long before they showed up in America during the mid-30s. It's not always possible to be sure that a particular shirt is really a t-shirt and not a short-sleeved sweater. There are also quite a few pictures with boys wearing what look like square-necked t-shirts, but it is likely that those shirts are of woven cloth, which would explain the larger square opening. Even so, I have found pictures of what I am reasonably certain are striped t-shirts worn as early as 1918. That was a picture of some Dutch Boy Scouts on a summer camping trip. I believe that striped t-shirts originated as the garment worn under the middy blouse of a sailor suit, and so might be worn by itself on a hot day on informal ocassions. It was only when photography became simple enough to be done by snapshooters that these more informal styles became part of the photographic record. Perhaps the fact that striped t-shirts made some of their first appearances in the U.S. at summer camps was because this was something borrowed from European practice; this will require more research. How do you say "summer camp" in the various European languages? Maybe I can use those terms when googling."

Square-collar shirts

We notice boys wearing "T"-shirt like shirts, but not with crew necks--eather square sailor necks. One example was a British family.

French naval shirts

The French Navy also had a striped shirt, perhaps originating with fishermen. The merchants and fishermen of Brittany seem to have adoped this style to distinguish them from other nationalities at a distance, later adopted and popularized by the French Navy and other navies of the pre-Dreadnought era.

Russian naval shirts

The Russian Navy also had a striped shirt. This seems to have been copied from the French Navy. The shirt was called a Telnyashka. The Tsaervitch wore these suits with his sailor suits. It acquired some prominance in Russia, perhaps in part because of the role that the Russian Navy played in the Revolution.

Basque shirts

We note Haines ads from the 1940s that refer to striped "T"-shirts it offered as Baque Shirts. We are not sure why they used this term. Bor are we famiklisr with the Basque shirts that inspired this name. One reader believes that it may refer to a stiped shirt Pblo Picaso wore in a famous photograph. I wore these shirts in the 1940s abd 50s, but I never heard them called Basque shirts. Of course the Basque are located on the Bay of Biscay and are also found in France. So there is some overlap between the Basques and French fishermen.

Early Uses

HBC is not yet positive about the origins of the brightly striped "T"-shirts which appeared in America during the late 1930s and became so popular in the 1940s. A number of factors may be involved.

Summer camp

I'm not positive when summer camps developed as such an established part of an American child's boyhood. Summer camps must have existed before World War I (1914-18), but they became much more popular in the 1920s. Youth groups like the couts and YMCA set up camps. Many private camps were also opened. Boys at these camps would commonly wear short pants. Some camps, especially the private ones, had actual uniforms--often consisting of short pants and "T"-shirt with the camp name and logo. Many of the boys upon returning home, wanted to wear the comfortable "T" shirts. Gurls started wearing tghem as well. We note a similar trend in Europe. One Itlaian summer campmhad striped T-shirts giving a nautical look.n We notice the Malaguiti brothers in 1967.

Casual trends

The "T"-shirts fitted in with the new casual life style developing after World War I. They were an especially useful garment for mother has they were easy to launnder and did not reqquire ironing.

World War II

"T"-shirts increased in popularity during the late 1940s were the result of the GI-custom of wearing undershirts in tropical and summer postings.


HBC believes that "T"-shirts first appeared in the 1930s, however, this is just an initial estimate at this time. They became an almost required part of any American boys' wardrobe by the late-1940s and are now a virtual cultural icon.

The 1930s

The "T"-shirt worn as a shirt rather than an undershirt appeared in the mid- or late-1930s. We do not recall seeing them in the 1920s. Some may have been worn earlier insteaded of dickies with sailor suits. We need to investi\gate that.

The 1940s

The "T"-shirt worn as a shirt rather than an undershirt became increasing popular in the late 1940s. American boys commonly wore short sleeved "T"-shirts with bright stripes. Long sleeved verisons appeared for the fall and spring. We note striped T-shirts being worn throughout the 1940s. We see them being offered among sets for younger boys in 1941. We also notice models wearing these shirts even on catalog pages selling other garnents such as hosiery. Ads later in the decade were more commonly done in color. We see many examples such as a Hanes ad in 1949.

The 1950s

"T"-shirts in the 1950s a virtual badge of American boyhood. Boys wore short sleeve "t" shirts in the summer, but there were long sleeve shirts for the winter as well. Everyone wore them. We note some "t" shirts with logos in the 1950s. Some popular ones included Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and Davey Crocket. Much more popular were "T"-shirts with the brightly colored stripes. Boys often wore these to primary school, called grade or elementary school in America. Older boys might wear white plain white "t" shirts, but not to school.

The 1960s

The 1970s

During the 1970s it became stylish to put logos on T-shirts. This began in America in the 1950s, but we see bin catching on in Europe as well. At first sport logos were popular. Corporate logo followed as did logos with social or a variety of other messages.

The 1980s

We continue to see boys wearing T-shirts in the 1980s. It is one of the most enduing boys' style in the modern age. They were a standard item of boys clothing. Striped patterns continued to be very popular, but so were T-shirts with logos and popular cartoon and other characters. While we see the shirts around the world, conventions varied. American boys wore them for play and school. They were most common for summer play, but it is a rare American elementary (primary) school potrait that does not show at least some of the boys wearing T-shirts in warm weather. The T-shirt was a seasonal garment, but there were long-sleeved versions for colder weather. Many countries had more formal dress standards for school. They were not commonly worn for smart casual occassions, but similar collared shirts like polos shirts in the Rugby style might be acceptable. They were not done in stripes like the T-shirts.

The 1990s

The 2000s

A reader writes in 2004, "I tried to do a little research on expensive t-shirts by seeing what was available at Macy's website. I discovered that they don't sell shool-age boyswear there, just preschool and mens sizes. So I looked at the different brands of young men's t-shirts; they count as boyswear as they are worn by teens. The first thing I noticed is that they are sold by brand and not by article of clothing. You can't call up all t-shirts; you can only look at one brand at a time. This demonstrates how important the brands of clothing are to Macy's customers, or at least how important Macy's wants the brands to be to their customers. So you can look up the Adidas line, and find t-shirts from $30 to $35, with "Adidas" or the Adidas logo prominently displayed. Or you can look at the lines from DKNY, Guess, Nike, PhatPharm, Polo, Tommy, Quiksilver, or Sean John, and find t-shirts priced up to $46. And to justify those prices they each are emblazoned with the name or logo of that brand. It reminds me of Minnie Pearl wearing that hat with the price tag still attached so that everyone would know how much she had paid for it! There are plenty of teens who aren't into that stuff, but Macy's doesn't seem to be interested in marketing to them. Maybe that's why they don't bother marketing to preteens either; they're just not as much into name-brand hype.


The "T"-shirts were originally just for boys and were most commonly bright colored horizontal stripes. Styles have since become much more varried. Popular variants include college logos, tourist atractions, sport teams, and popular trade brands. Girls began wearing "T" shirts in the 1960s and they are now commonly worn by both boys and girls.


The ininitial "T"-shirts with colored horizontal stripes were worn by younger boys up to 12 ior 13 years of age. Older boys might wear plain white "T"-shirts. Older boys began wearing "T"-shirts in the 1970s when styles with sports and other logos began to become popular. Today toddlers, children, and teen agers all wear "T"-shirts as well as many adults.

Country Trends

The "T"-shirt in all its different ramifications is most associated with the United States. We believe it fitst appeared there ijn the 1930s, but became a major fashion item in the 1940s and has continued to be a fashion main stay ever since. We also see them in Canada. A goo exanple is an unidentified Ontario boy in 1955. The styles of "T"-shirts have changed and they have been adopted by girls, but the popularity has continued since the 1940s. While originatibng in Zmerica, after World War II the "T"-shirt spread to Europe and other areas of the world. This took some time, but by the 1970s we see the "T"-shirt as a major fashion style all over the world. The "T"-shirt was an important part of the pan-European style that has become dominant all over the continent and makes it virtually impossible to tell where children are from based on their clothing.


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Created: March 21, 1998
Last updated: 3:14 AM 5/2/2017