Although the T-shirt in popular culture is widely associated with the rise of the ‘teenager’ in 1950’s American culture, its first development as a piece of outerwear actually has its origins in the Ivy League College system of North Eastern USA.  ‘New Thinking’ students of the time used the T-Shirt as a way of physically representing the refusal to accept higher societal and to an extent religious norms as was handed to them – ‘by removing old clothing’

It is true that in the 1950’s the T-shirt found its way into popular American culture.  As a garment it was used to represent a young group who through higher prosperity could afford leisure time within their weekly routine.  Therefore as a way to symbolise this ‘comfort’ which they found in their lives, the T-Shirt cemented its place within the wardrobe of U.S. citizens.  As Hollywood superstars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean began to be seen appearing on screen, using the T-Shirt as outerwear, the style became globalized.

The 1960’s would see the role of the T-Shirt change.  Graphic technique advancement allowed more creativity in terms of design to be explored, whilst companies such as Disney fully exploited the potential which lay in giving millions of children the opportunity to wear a piece of merchandsie containing reference to their favourite characters.  Band T-Shirts also came to prominance in late 60’s, with particularly ‘Metal’ groups creating lavish designs which have become synonomous with their era in contemporary culture.

In the 1970’s, the more politically charged messages which orginated in the late 60’s such as pictures of Che Guevara evolved, paricularly in the UK where the Punk Rock phenomena had began to emerge.  Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood created the now legendary “God Save The Queen” design, whilst slogan T-shirts also became more daring – encapsulated in the “Shit Happens” T-shirt.

The 1980’s saw the emergence of persoanlly printed T-Shirts where, for the first time, the wearer could choose to display the message which was important to them. At the avant-grade end of the market, brand such as Martin Margiela, Comme Des Garcons and Ann Demeulemeester all used T-shirt’s in the process of deconstructionism, partly helping to shape what we know as the contemporary T-Shirt market.

In the 1990’s Sportwear brands began to come to prominence.  High end Designer’s for the first time, truly began to explore the potential which lay in the T-shirt Market.  Sub-brands such as Armani Jeans and D&G, began to fully ‘brand’  T-shirts, not only attracting a new market to otherwise unattainable brands in terms of price point, but also showing how fashion houses could adapt to meet the wants and needs of the youth market.  More mainstream dersions of this idea came into public attention, with brands such as GAP popularizing this method.

What began as a method of gaining a market proportion from sportswear brands, became a way of representing an individuals lifestyle choice. Quicksilver T-shirts became synonomous with Skateboarding and Surfing, whilst others such as FUBU, STUSSY and Supreme were aligned with Hip-Hop.  This meant that the flippant political messages which orginiated in the 60’s and 70’s had been replaced by the all encompassing nature of ‘brand’ – and crucially it is from these beginnings which streetwear originates.

These early foundations of T-Shirts in streetwear do hold connotations of somewhat ‘grimey’ settings for many people, a tone which Japanese streetwear brands were quick to change in the early 21st century.  Brands such as BAPE and later BBC, who remain two of the largest streetwear brands, began to alter the public perception of  T-Shirts.  The over-sized stereotype T-Shirts of Hip Hop became replaced by clean cut T-shirts in a variety of styles, featuring graphic art of an elevated nature – a move which aimed to disassociate these brands from their predecessors.   Furthermore, this pushed the price point of such T-shirts higher – an essential element.  Creating this clean cut, sophisticated, wealthy and aspirational lifestyle, meant that prices had to be attainable, but high enough so that essentially ordinary consumers were forced into ‘saving’ in order to but the ‘logo’.

The wave of high uptake which this sparked caused many brands to take notice, Comme Des Garcons introduced PLAY – a sub brand dedicated to the youth market, featuring artwork from graphic designer Filip Pagowski – Dirk Bikkembergs launched the Sport Couture line, whilst Walter Van Bierendonck (One of the most respected avant-garde designers in the world) launched a range of  T-Shirts, featuring humourous graphics which aimed to draw a new market who had been previously put of by the labels lavish nature.  Emerging streetwear brands such as WTaps and Original Fake have been quick to cement their brands status through T-Shirt design, creating a style and product with associated lifestlye choices for the youth market – with the same pricing structure as discussed above.

Now, every brand realises the importance of having T-Shirts as part of each collection.  Adam Kimmel this week released images of T-Shirts which are part of their George Condo inspired Gambler collection, avaliable at Dover Street Market. This in itself show that even the most conceptual of collections realise the necessity of allowing consumers easier access to high level design and price point products – a sentiment which rings ever more true in an age of austerity.

Take the world renowned boutique Colette as example of this.  Any consumer which has been lucky enough to visit this store will know themselves that a glass cube directly in front of the entrance house creative T-Shirts, not only allowing consumers to be creative in what they wear with such pieces – a hugely positive by-product of the T-Shirt culture – but also meaning accessible products are available in an aspirational store, whilst high level design products are housed upstairs – a move which is in no way an indictment on Colette!

We all have T-Shirts in our wardrobe, and has been explored their role has hugely changed over the past 60 years.  Finally,to today’s market,a recent, hugely creative T-Shirt from Balmain Fall/Winter 10’11 collection which  retails at €405, is far removed from the norm which consumers expect.  However, when such financial restraints are lifted in the future, perhaps the T-Shirt will take on a new role, as centre pieces of our wardrobe, rather than the outerwear of today.  With the journey it has taken so far, anything is possible.