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History of t-shirts

May 09, 2012 | Scott

We live and breathe T-shirts here at Balcony, and we know our stuff. We’re teachers, and we reckon the more you know about T-shirts the easier it is for you to make the right decision when it comes to buying one. Cos, you know, knowledge is power and all that. So here’s a Balcony guide to the history of T-shirts. Everything you’re about to read is totally true; we checked our facts with that historian bloke on TV who used to be called Baldrick. He said ‘yep, sounds about right to me‘, so here it is.*

A Brief History of T-Shirts

The Crusades were a gory time in mankind’s past, a time filled with the religious indoctrination by force of countless thousands of otherwise happy non-Christians. If the non-Christians didn’t choose to become Christians as soon as the proposition was put to them, they were often frowned upon and grounded. And then brutally slaughtered. Eventually, the Crusades had more-or-less succeeded in converting everyone either into Christians or into corpses, and the Holy Land was reclaimed. Pilgrims from all over Europe were soon trekking to visit the Holy Land, but their journey was one fraught with life-threatening danger, with bandits and other rascals lining the route ready to rob and kill them. It was getting out of hand; in one instance 120 pilgrims were massacred for their jewelry and petty cash. So a band of knights organised themselves together to protect the pilgrims, and they made the temple of Solomon their office. They were the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solominici, or the Knights Templar.

Battling bandits and rescuing pilgrims in dusty Israel was hot work, and the Knights Templar wore heavy armour. They didn’t have any money, so they couldn’t afford the new, lighter metal like the flashy Islamic equivalent soldiers were wearing, so they had to improvise. Under their chain mail, the Knights Templar started wearing linen vests, with the red cross of their order emblazoned on the front. It was 1131, and this was the birth of first ever T-shirt – undoubtedly a turning point in human history. Soon the Templars began to recognise how cool they looked, and at any given moment when they weren’t fighting in mercenary wars they could be found lounging around the fashionable coffee bars of Jerusalem’s precinct area (it’s now been turned into studio-flats) having pretentious conversations about whether the dialogue in Leviticus might in fact be based on much earlier Babylonian or Sumerian texts, and how the benevolent God of the New Testament could kick the ass of the grumpy, unapproachable God of the Old Testament. They were cool and they knew it. Soon, there were T-shirts being worn from the Red Sea to the Blue Danube, but still it was the Templars who were setting the trends.

Ironic T-Shirts

The Templars were mostly British, so they had a sense of irony and a taste for indie music. It was inevitable then that soon after the invention of the patterned T-shirt, they introduced funny T-shirts too. Some of the earliest records we have include compelling, cheeky slogans like ‘Jesus he Knoweth Me, and He Knoweth I’m Right’, and we also see evidence of the first British Towns range, such as ‘Londinium, it’s Fundinium’ – these t-shirts are the direct ancestors of our own British Towns range. Some of these funny T-shirts have lost a little of their edginess, and their meanings have been lost… like tears in the rain of time. For example, who knows what craziness inspired the slogan ‘What Happens in Telul eth-Thalathat, Stays in Telul eth-Thalathat’, but we can guess what brought about the wildly popular ‘I’ll have the Tossed Saladin’ T-Shirt, which featured a bearded character being vaulted from a catapult.

Humorous T-shirts began springing up across Europe, where they took root and flourished. Then Europe itself began to spread, taking control of Australia, and of South and North America. Funny T-shirts gripped the world, and that grip hasn’t loosened yet. Witty T-shirts found an audience during the darkness of the Crusades, and now Balcony are on a crusade of our own; to carry on the spirit and arcane references of the beautiful, humorous t-shirt.

*Actually, none of it is true. Sorry. The truth is that T-shirts were designed in around 1880 and designed as underwear. This ‘Underwear shirt’ became popular in Europe – popular enough to catch the eye of American soldiers during World War I who were sweating it out in their woollen uniforms. Noticing that their European counterparts were far more comfortable in their light weight cotton shirts, the Americans started following suit. They even gave it a snappy name – the T shirt – derived from the shape of the garment. Those clever Americans.T-shirts became even more popular during the Second World War, where the marines were wearing the names of their Corps so they could identify each other in the muddle of the army camps.

T shirts as we know them today really started to take off in the 50s and 60s when companies and organisations started decorating them. Colleges printed their names and logos on t shirts and sold them to students. Clothing companies started printing resort names and characters, particularly Disney favourites like Mickey Mouse. Others followed suit and by the mid 60s t shirts printed with company names and logos were big business.

In the 1970s Rock and Roll bands discovered that by printing their names and designs on t shirts, mainly black ones, they could make a small fortune. Bands started creating ranges to accompany their touring, often making more money from the merchandise than from the gig itself, as music fans worldwide lapped up t shirts with their heroes on.

T shirts today are a major part of any wardrobe, appealing to almost everybody. Unfortunately, they just don’t make them like they used to, which is where we come in. Balcony Shirts specialise in making cool shirts with a retro feel. Long live the T Shirt!

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