The History of The White Tee

05 May
Natacha Medeiros

One of fashion’s most versatile items is the white tee. It’s a blank slate to build an outfit around because, after all, it goes with pretty much anything. But how did this one, simple item become a staple in our closet? Let’s find out.


In the early 1900s, the t-shirt we know and love today actually started out an undergarment. Derived from a one-piece called a union suit, the tee originated from cutting this garment into two halves. The earliest t-shirts were short sleeve, cotton crewneck styles worn by naval men under their uniforms. Following their use in the Navy, the tee quickly became a popular garment within various other industries because it was inexpensive and easy to clean. And, by 1920, the word t-shirt was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. During the Great Depression, a simple white tee was often the garment of choice for working men and farmers. From there, a classic white cotton crewneck became military issue in World War II and many veterans wore their uniform pants with a white tee as casual wear.


Fast forward to the 1950s where Marlon Brando sported a white tee in A Streetcar Named Desire, followed by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Suddenly, the tee became fashionable and was worn more regularly in everyday, casual clothing. Printed and patterned t-shirts became all the rage through the sixties and seventies (think: tie-dye and band tees) and by the eighties, a mix of fitted tees and boxy fit slogan tees were all the rage. The popularity of the tee didn’t die in the nineties. In fact, in 1991, Karl Lagerfeld paired a classic Chanel tweed cardigan over a white tee, proving that this staple is designer-worthy.


Since then, the tee has been seen on red carpets and runways and can be found in practically anyone’s wardrobe, all with good reason: It can be dressed up or down, worn to work out or go out, paired with heels or sneakers. In a nutshell, the t-shirt is timeless.


Let us know who wore this classic piece best! Brigitte Bardot or Jane Birkin?





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