From Gangway to Runway: The Naval Roots of T-Shirts

by Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

Break out those t-shirts, it’s summer time! Whether you’re rocking a Navy pride tee or the classic plain white, t-shirts are an essential part of the American wardrobe. Surprisingly, t-shirts have only been around for about a hundred years and they started as nothing more than skivvies. 

Nautical Roots

Although undershirts were common as early as the mid-1800s, their transformation into the t-shirt we know and love came much later. American sailors serving in the decades before World War I wore a looser undershirt with no buttons and an “elastic collarette” at the neck. The Navy issued sailors both heavy undershirts made of wool and light undershirts made of cotton or linen. These casual undershirts could be worn uncovered when the sailor was performing tough physical labor, but were rarely seen in public. 

In 1913, the U.S. Navy officially adopted what is considered the first American t-shirt. Initially made of wool, later more breathable cotton, these collarless undershirts featured a “crew” neckline, short sleeves, and the more fitted “T-shape.” Unlike today’s t-shirts, the sleeves of the early design were much shorter, hitting about mid-bicep and the shirt’s crew neck was wider. Throughout the First World War, Sailors wore them under their uniforms and only used them as outerwear when performing physical labor or cooling off in hot climates.

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Three mess cooks work in t-shirts, circa 1913. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Standard Military Wear

During World War II, the plain white t-shirt became standard issue for Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines. Unfortunately for the Army and Marines, the stark white color made camouflage difficult. These enterprising young men made due by dyeing their t-shirts with coffee. By 1944, the Army and Marines stopped issuing the white tees, and instead handed out khaki and khaki camouflage patterned t-shirts.

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A sailor stationed in the Caribbean is photographed laundering his t-shirts. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Meanwhile, the civilian company of Sears, Roebuck and Co. began to capitalize on the new military look. In 1938, Sears offered its first civilian t-shirt. Sears called it the “gob” shirt, a direct reference to the t-shirt’s Navy heritage. During WWII, Sears continued to sell t-shirts, now advertising them as “Army Style” and using the slogan, “You don’t need to be a soldier to have your own personal T-shirt.”

After the war, returning members of the military continued to wear their beloved t-shirts, often as outerwear instead of as the traditional underwear. This use, along with extensive media coverage during the war, popularized the t-shirt among the American public.

Part of American Culture

In the 1950s, heartthrobs James Dean and Marlon Brando completed the t-shirt’s transformation from Sailor skivvies to wardrobe essential by rocking their white tees on the big screen. No longer just for members of the military, the t-shirt came to symbolize rebellion and a common socioeconomic status. T-shirts also became an ideal messaging method, donning graphics, advertisements, political stances, and humorous messages. 

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Marlon Brando wears a t-shirt on the silver screen in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951. Library of Congress.

Today, most Americans have a plethora of t-shirts on hand. We love them for their comfort, ease of wear, and versatility. But next time you pull on a beloved t-shirt, think back to its humble beginnings as nothing more than a working Sailor’s basic undershirt.

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