Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Time for Tee

Unless there’s a wedding, job interview or bank manager to get to, chances are a tee shirt is the default setting for most bloke’s wardrobe. Pull on the tee, dither between cargos or jeans, and us chaps are good to go. But it wasn’t always like this. Invented (as are most good things) by us plucky Brits, what we think of as a tee shirt first appeared in Victorian England as underwear. Always white and hidden from view it was called a vest or undervest, and that’s probably how things would have stayed without two World Wars. So the Germans probably think they invented it.

When the Americans were persuaded to come and win World War I for us hopeless Limeys it wasn’t just our Sopwith Camels they admired. Our nice cotton tees were far more comfy under scratchy wool uniforms than Uncle Sam’s knitted woollen vest, so when GI Joe went home he took our cotton tees with him, although to this day an American will call a white cotton tee worn underneath his shirt a vest.

Sometime between the wars the American military started using the term “tee shirt”. Some say the cut off sleeves led to it being nicknamed amputee, quickly, er, cut short to “tee”. More plausible is that when the tee was adopted as the US Army and Navy training shirt abbreviation loving servicemen labelled it the t-shirt.

So when the Germans got feisty again in 1939 the Americans repeated their trick of turning up fashionably late and overdressed. By now the British Tommy had moved on to what we’d call a vest and dodgy looking gym fiends call a singlet, but our transatlantic cousins were still using the tee as a vest. This was considered very much gentleman’s underwear and to be hidden from a swooning damsel’s sight at all times.

Except Pathe News had other ideas. Noble war heroes were shown in cinemas, stripped to what the wide eyed world considered their underwear, fighting the good fight and defending our freedom. Today there’s nothing at all strange about a soldier fighting in boots, trousers and tee shirt (although we’d expect a Flack Jacket and Oakley shades as well) but in the 1940’s this was groundbreaking. No wonder the Yanks were so good at pulling womenfolk who’d been treated by the local Odeon to the sight of strong young Americans stripped to their undies. Now you know where Arnie and Stallone got their ideas.

So by the time American GI’s returned to peacetime America turning up in a plain white tee and jeans might still have been outrageous but was now just about acceptable, especially if you really were returning from war. Add a leather jacket and the world was suddenly full of wannabe Marlon Brandos and Jimmy Deans.

And as so often happens what was once outrageous was picked up by the Establishment and churned out for a profit. The first printed tee shirt was produced for an American politician’s election campaign in 1948, and within a few years a Miami based business was selling printed tees commercially. From there it’s just a short ride to everything from the designer branded organic high ticket number, all the way down to the guy selling unlicensed logo tees printed in his garage.

So maybe, just maybe, our modern tee is an American invention. But they probably thought that already. But the best are definitley Benzinas -

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