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Undershirts have been around as long as anyone living can remember. Just how far back do they go, and when did “under” go “outer”? Everywhere takes a look at the history and evolution of the modern undershirt.  

Perhaps surprisingly, undergarments weren’t initially intended as insulation or protection from the elements as much as to protect outer garments from the body. This especially makes sense when you consider that bathing as a regular hygienic ritual did not come into practice until the 18th century. Think about how funky a man’s garments might have gotten previous to that. Also, certain articles of outerwear would have proved scratchy on the skin. Thus those who could afford it wore undergarments to address these problems. Previous to the 15th century, noblemen never exposed their shirts. Gradually, collars and decorative cuffs came more into view, but until the end of the 19th century, not much more of the shirt was actually visible. This is why detachable collars and cuffs were invented for dress shirts, as they were the only parts of a shirt that had to be consistently washed. In this sense, a shirt was itself an undershirt, i.e., it remained invisible. As such, gentlemen had no need of any additional undershirt.

Among working-class men, wool or flannel tunics were sometimes worn under their clothes to help keep them warm. Then in 1868, the first “union suit” undergarment was patented, an early example of modern manufacturing being utilized to make modern garments more comfortable. Originally designed for women, the union suit was soon being marketed to working-class and rural men as an undergarment for everyday wear with the benefit of helping save visible garments from wear and tear. Having evolved into what are known today as “long johns,” the union suit also proved the ancestor of the modern undershirt.

In the early 20th century, the U.S. Navy started issuing undershirts for crews to wear under their uniforms and help avoid soiling their uniforms. During WWII and the Korean War, sailors and marines started wearing their undershirts as outerwear whenever possible, especially in tropical weather or aboard submarines. Soon other kinds of workers started adopting them in lieu of the old-style long johns. Still, outside of duty, it wasn’t considered gentlemanly to wear just an undershirt in public. Enter the 1950s, Hollywood stars Marlon Brando and James Dean appeared in movies wearing just undershirts. Having suddenly attained sex-symbol status, the modern undershirt or “T-shirt” came into its own. It wouldn’t be long before they started proliferating in colors, as well as with breast pockets for a more outerwear look. Then in the 60s with advances in printing on fabric, came the psychedelic influence. T-shirts became wearable posters featuring rock bands and counter-culture slogans – not to mention tie-dye. The 70s punk movement saw T-shirts get torn up and safety-pinned back together. By the 80’s, designers were turning out high-end T-shirts with three-digit price tags. No longer just a mere “undershirt,” the T’s sophisticated new status even allowed it to be worn with a suit in place of a proper shirt. From submarine depths to red-carpet visibility, in less than a century the undershirt had undergone a remarkable evolution.

Indeed today, T-shirts are so ubiquitous, we hardly think twice about them. Those still relegated to “underwear” come in myriad styles – from thick knits with long sleeves, to V-necks and tank tops that allow the outer shirt’s top buttons to be left undone; from luxurious silks and sheers to high-tech and athletic-wear fabrics, and even compression undershirts for a slimming effect. What’s more, we still have long johns for extra insulation in winter. Whether a man chooses to wear undershirts or not is totally individual, but there are still very practical reasons in favor of it. These include: sweat protection, skin protection, warmth, keeping chest hair from poking through the outer shirt, guarding outer shirts against deodorant stains, and saving on laundry bills overall. Thanks to Marlon and Jimmy, they can also be downright sexy. But with or without an undershirt, nothing can take the place of a well-cut, button-down shirt. Take it from Nick Graham.  

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