The T-Shirt: A History of the Blank Tee, Part 1

July 11, 2018

The T-Shirt: A History of the Blank Tee, Part 1

A History of the Blank Tee

1934 and 1935 were incredible years for film. Hitler was rearming and brazenly marching toward a second world war, using Leni Riefenstahl's documentary, Triumph de Willens, to help him do so. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were teaming up for for the first time in their illustrious careers, The Black Cat was becoming America's first psychological horror film, Cecille B. Demille was publishing his epic Cleopatra, and Johnny Weismuller was furthering his Tarzan legacy with Tarzan and his Mate,the second Tarzan film of what would become Weismuller's life-long endeavor.  

But for T-shirt lovers like us at bulkthreads.com, another film from 1934 showed us something incredible--actors like Clark Gable could influence an entire industry just because of what they did, or did not, wear. 

The film was It Happened One Night and the scene was the Walls of Jericho. In this scene Gable, a down-on-his-luck reporter, confesses that he's only been pretending to help runaway heiress Ellie Andrews on her "mad dash to happiness" because he needed her a blockbuster story.  As Ellie (played by Claudette Colbertt) stares at Gable, aghast, Gable makes a deal--if she gives him an exclusive day-to-day account of her travels, he'll make sure she gets to where she's going: to her secret boyfriend, a west-coaster named King Westley.  

But it's not the confession that makes this scene so interesting; it's the fact that Clark Gable, arguably America's most famous actor and celebrity at the time, undresses in front of the camera, narrating the entire process as he goes.  (If you haven't seen this movie, it's definitely worth the watch. At least check out "Walls of Jericho" on Youtube. And as he takes off his shirt, teasing Ellie all the way, Gable does something that made his audience's jaws drop like a bad click-bait article at the bottom of your favorite website--he reveals a bare chest.  Not another shirt.  Not an undergarment t-shirt.  Just a plain old bare chest. 

It was supposed to be a simple scene in a longer, more complex narrative, but the aftereffects of Gable undressing, according to legend, were chaos. Mary Gottschalk wrote that sales for t-shirts, these plain-white, crewnecked undergarments that every man in America wore, plummeted. 

They dropped a full 75%, in fact.  

If superstars like Gable didn't wear an undershirt, why should the average Joe? (see "AMC’s Look at Hollywood Fashion Follows Fads from Screen to Closet").  Jacqueline Bisset said the t-shirt industry became "paralyzed."

In short order, Gable had just revealed yet another example of the power of celebrity and celebrity endorsement.  All at the expense of the t-shirt.  


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