The Shirt That Went From “Under” To “Outer”

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 24, 2021, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

          Although the old saying, “Clothes make the man,” has some truth to it, clothing trends change rather frequently, and, every decade or so, rather drastically. A case in point is the T-shirt, which in my retirement years I wear much of the time. In the 1940’s, most people wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing a T-shirt in public, including me.

          By the time I was in high school in the late 1940’s, we teenage boys were wearing white T-shirts as undershirts under our outer shirts, whereas our fathers were still wearing A-shirts (or “wife beaters,” as they were derogatorily called). Teenagers who wore T-shirts as outer shirts were considered very bold and daring, but there were a few who did. It really wasn’t until the 1960’s, that the T-shirt became widely worn as an outer garment by young people, rock-and-roll musicians and fans, and hippies. Some of the older folks felt it wasn’t proper attire.

          Having lived through the evolution and history of the T-shirt, I was fascinated by the histories written about the garment on numerous websites, including and Much of the history I knew, having lived it, but there were a few facts that I didn’t. For example, I did know that the T-shirt started out as an undershirt, but I did not know that the earliest version of it was known as a “union suit,” which I wore as a child. It was soft T-shirt material from neck to either the knees or the ankles, and it had a rectangle-shaped opening in the back. I remember hating to wear union suits.

          Supposedly from the union suit evolved the first actual T-shirt, when the United States Navy began outfitting sailors with them, somewhere between 1898 and 1913, to be worn under their uniforms. They were short-sleeved, crew neck, soft, and white. I don’t know at what point civilians started wearing them, but, as I said, they were the undergarment of choice for teenage boys in the late 1940’s.

          Then came rock-and-roll, the hippie movement, and a more laid-back, rebellious generation in the 1960’s, the era the T-shirt first came into popular use as an outer garment. Tie-dying and screen painting were the most widely used method of creating colorful Tees. “Band shirts” were extremely popular, a shirt that depicted your favorite rock band. “Graphic” or “Printed T-shirts” eventually sported just about any kind of image the wearer wanted, the image applied to the shirt by a number of newly developed advanced ink jet heads and faster machine-done embroidering. Cotton is the most preferred fabric for Tees (over fifty percent are cotton), the rest being linen, polyester, rayon, and blends.

          As a college student attending a state college in the 1950’s, I don’t recall anyone wearing T-shirts on the campus. We were probably rather “dressed up” by today’s standards.

          As a teacher in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, I was required to wear a dress shirt and a tie to class, so the thought of wearing Tees in public never crossed my mind. At that point, I was still wearing T-shirts as underwear. Even on weekends and holidays I wouldn’t wear a Tee in public.

          Never being in the avant-garde of trendy fashions, I was probably one of the very last males to wear a T-shirt as an outer shirt in public. My memory is cloudy, but I think my debut Tee-in-public had “Houston Colt .45s” emblazoned on it. Finding the soft cotton garment very comfortable in the Texas heat, I started wearing Tees after that fairly regularly.

          Over the years, my favorite Tee was a Superman T-shirt, with the superhero’s emblem printed on the front. Because I had been a Superman fan as a child, collecting his comic books and joining the Superman Fan Club, someone in my family (I think my wife), gave me the Superman shirt as a gag gift. However, I liked it so well, I wore it until my once trim physique got lumpy in the wrong places, and I had to retire it out of respect for the exemplary Man of Steel.

My collection of T-shirts includes quite a few from the years we held Vacation Bible School at my church. The VBS theme and the year are emblazoned on each year’s Tee. If you look in my closet, you can see my weight gain over the years. A man can hide weight gains by wearing a guayabera shirt, but not a Tee. I save the shirts, because I keep thinking I will lose weight one of these days.

Having gone from under-wear to outer-wear in a fairly short length of time, the globally popular Tee has become a lucrative business worldwide. According to a recent market report by Credence Research, T-shirts are a 206.12 billion dollar business worldwide. That’s incredible for a simple little shirt that went from “under” to “outer.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and the author of two books, It Must Be the Noodles and Open Prairies.

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