Under...whelming

Posted: Aug 12 2014

There are many hot button issues in the world of men's fashion, which is ironic given that fashion is fundamentally supposed to be fun and about creativity, individuality, and personal expression. But let's avoid that topic for another day. Or perhaps never.

Instead, let's focus on an item that makes some men's blood boil (and probably causes one to sweat): undershirts.

And before you get all in a huff and start looking for things to take issue with, here's a spoiler alert: we're not going to give you the satisfaction of being able to argue in favor or in opposition to the undershirt. Instead, we're just going to discuss the history of the garment.

So, first things first: why are we discussing undershirts? Two reasons: 1) we feel like it and 2) we've recently noticed a number of men proudly displaying their undershirts, under button down shirts, like a badge of honor and it got us thinking, what's up with the undershirt?

Well, though we've recently witnessed these proud undershirt wearing folk, this isn't the undershirt's first rodeo. Far from it. In fact, undershirts have been around for almost 100 years, serving a practical purpose for men, primarily in the U.S. For instance, men in the U.S. Army (and yes, I can say men with conviction because at the time, it was only men) often wore undershirts as a means of capturing sweat and moisture, thus also avoiding the discomfort some feel when profusely sweating all day while engaged in battle. (And as an aside, but an important one, thanks to all men and women serving our country for their service.)

Furthermore, others in similarly taxing, blue collar professions sported undershirts for some of the same reasons. But the undershirt wasn't as quickly adopted by those running with the suit and tie crowd. Though that's not to say that there weren't any white collar men wearing undershirts and though not adopted as rapidly among white collar workers, undershirt adoption rates rose, steadily, among those in the white collar workforce to the point that in the 1920s and early 1930s, undershirts were more common than not among white collar workers.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan for undershirt zealots. And then It Happened. MCMXXXIV, or 1934, for those who are only through 1933 in their Roman Numeral studies. Yes, 1934, a year that is defined by a lot of other important events, including the ascension of a political leader who would wreck unimaginable havoc and destruction. But a year that, for better or worse, forever changed the course of history for undershirts.

A logical individual might ask, “well, what occurred?” And because we value logic here at WvG, we'll tell you. It Happened. More specifically, the film, It Happened One Night, was released and in it, trendsetter and style icon to the masses, Clark Gable, revealed that he didn't wear an undershirt. Men and women in the U.S. reacted just as one might predict: unpredictably yet in an extreme fashion. Undershirt sales dropped by 75% and it wasn't until the 1940s that undershirts began to emerge from their darkest days (or more accurately, not noticeably emerge because they're hidden, but be emerge from an economic perspective).

                                            

And through the 1950s and beyond, undershirt sales struggled. Despite icons like Marlon Brando sporting undershirts in iconic movie scenes, like the Stella one in A Streetcar Named Desire, undershirts weren't what they used to be: ubiquitous. Furthermore, they started to serve a different purpose: a replacement for a t-shirt. But the trouble with this new purpose was that t-shirts were much more common among a certain class and thus, widespread adoption of undershirts continued to stall.

                                                                   

But today, undershirts are no longer the underbelly of society. Instead, they're just there, in the shadows. Quiet yet purposeful for some, prominently displayed by others, a matter of great frustration for few, and nothing worth mentioning to most.

And that, my friends, is what's up with undershirts.

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