In few places, is this more evident than with the history of the graphic tee. Today, graphic shirts are all about geek culture, 90s nostalgia, and coping with the pandemic. But there’s a vibrant history behind this colorful piece of clothing. That’s why today, we’re going to take a brief look back at where graphic tees came from and how they’ve changed over the years.
~100-868: Textile Printing is Born
Although historians aren’t entirely clear on the specifics, what we do know is that the first technique for decorating textiles with dye — woodblock printing — can be traced back to China. The first known Chinese woodblock print, the Diamant-Sutra, is dated 868. There are also Japanese printing techniques from the 700s that were clearly influenced by Chinese prints.
Woodblock printing was eventually introduced to Europe sometime in the 1100s.
~960-1278: The Invention of Screen Printing
As with woodblock printing, screen printing originated in China during the Song Dynasty, though Japan was the first country to use it in a widespread fashion, applying stenciling techniques for more intricate designs. Screen printing made its way to Europe in the 18th century but was not terribly popular until much later.
1700s: Industrial Textiles
The British textile industry was one of the greatest benefactors of the industrial revolution, something which played a significant role in the popularization of decorative clothing. Inventions such as the flying shuttle and steam power made it possible to produce more intricate fabrics on a larger scale than ever before.
1898-1913: The First T-Shirts
T-shirt-like apparel such as tunics have surfaced multiple times throughout history. However, the eponymous garment we know today traces its origin directly back to The Union Suit — a one-piece undergarment popular in the late 19th/early 20th century. Factory workers, frustrated by the heat, took to cutting the sleeves of the union suit off and separating the top half from the bottom.
The Cooper Underwear Company eventually began offering the tops as “bachelor undershirts.”
1920: The Term “T-Shirt” is Coined
Although the inventor of the garment itself is lost to history, we do know the first recorded historical use of the phrase T-Shirt. Credit goes to Francis Scott Fitzgerald in his novel This Side of Paradise.
1938: The National Serigraph Society
Recognizing the potential of screen printing beyond industrial use, a group of artists founded the National Serigraph Society in 1938 in an effort to provide differentiation. Founding members included Max Arthur Cohn and Anthony Velonis.
1940s: A Military Matter
The first known graphic tees were used by the United States military. Soldiers were given shirts with their military branch/training program printed on the front; these shirts were used for both recruitment and promotion, and remained popular even after World War 2.
In 1942, Life Magazine published a spread dedicated to military veterans, which prominently featured graphic tees.
1950s: Much Ado About Marlon Brando
It was Marlon Brando who first truly brought the T-shirt into the public eye in A Streetcar Named Desire. James Dean further popularized the garment in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
1959: New Ink, New Ideas
The invention of Plastisol in 1959 kicked off a revolution in screen printing, popularizing the technique and allowing more creative freedom and more complex graphics.
1969: A New Method
If Plastisol was revolutionary, the dual rotary printing press was even more so. Invented by Michael Vasilantone in the 1960s, it was quicker and cleaner than any other printing method on the market.
1960-1980: Cultural Rebellion
From the 1960s onward, graphic tees started to become popular in multiple spheres. They were a tool for counterculture movements, allowing protestors to wear their cause. They also became immensely popular as band merch, with memorable examples like the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, The Beatles, and Pink Floyd still being worn today.
1970-1990: Corporate Enters the Ring
Perhaps inspired by their popularity in the music scene, savvy brands began leveraging tee shirts as marketing tools, giving birth to the logo tee. The biggest proponents of this movement included Nike, Calvin Klein, Coca-Cola, and Adidas.
1990-2000: Out of Vogue
Due to market saturation, graphic tees saw something of a decline in popularity in the 90s. During this period, they mostly saw use in political movements, nonprofits, and the music industry.
2000s: Your Shirt, Your Opinion
The growth of the eCommerce sector created a surge in popularity for graphic tees, as printing companies like BlueCotton began offering print-on-demand service, complete with custom shirts.
As you can see above, clothing and culture have always been closely linked to one another — so much so that the former can often act as a touchstone for the latter.
Who knows what the future might bring?