Monday, May 12, 2014

The T-shirt in film - Now you don't see it, Now you do

After seeing It Happened One Night on TCM for what seemed like the hundredth time,  I started thinking about the white t-shirt in film. And when you think of t-shirts in film, you first think of Clark Gable doing a strip tease in front of Claudette Colbert. When he takes off his shirt, gasp, no undershirt - just bare skin. (they didn't call them t-shirts in those days, they were undershirts with no sleeves - t-shirts were named Tee shirts because they have sleeves and they're in the shape of a T).

In the weeks after the film’s release, sales of men’s undershirts nosedived. 

Or did they? And if they did, was it because of Clark Gable's strip tease?  According to Snopes, "the tale about Clark Gable and the demise of the men's undershirt industry is another example of how easily a piece of information can become an accepted "fact" whose validity is never questioned despite any real evidence that it is indeed true. 

Perhaps rather than looking for a cause-and-effect relationship here, we should regard the decline in undershirt-wearing (if one did indeed occur) as yet another instance of a common phenomenon: Popular figures who reflect shifts in societal norms come to be seen as the causative agents who brought those shifts about, even though they were already well underway.  So maybe when Clark Gable appeared sans undershirt in It Happened One Night, he was following a trend, not starting one. Or just maybe there was no trend at all, and the whole story was concocted by a publicity agent as a ploy to bolster Gable's appeal at contract renewal time."

No one knows for sure when the 1st T-shirt was invented. Some say the navy brought them out in 1913 and then again during WWII.

The first use of the word "T-shirt" in print was in 1920 in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise." Protagonist Amory Blaine is setting out for New England, "the land of schools," and his list of supplies included "six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T shirt."

The 1950s saw T-shirts in several films. Here's examples of the three best. First there was Marlon Brando in 1951s A Streetcar Named Desire.

In 1955 came James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. You can just see a peak of his t-shirt in this video of the film - but it's fun to watch the milk bottle scene!


Following Brando was Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from 1958. Here's what he looked like, but there was noYoutube video of him in a T-shirt. You'll have to watch the whole movie to see him in his glory.

You too can pretend you're T-shirt-worthy and ready for your closeup, just try this on for size:


1 comment:

  1. Who knew F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the term T-shirt? I learned so much...and loved seeing Paul Newman again.