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Keep it simple

Charting the evolution of the classic T-shirt from the humble undergarment to modern loungewear

The Sunspel T-shirt, made in England since 1890, crafted in a fine, long staple Pima cotton
The Sunspel T-shirt, made in England since 1890, crafted in a fine, long staple Pima cotton

Sunspel made a long-sleeve undergarment in cotton in the early years of the 20th century for wear in the tropics, and in many ways this is a direct ancestor of today’s English-made luxury crew-neck style that the brand is best known for. Over time, the original item was modified, taking in influences from the States. Josh Simms, author of Icons of Men’s Style, explains how Sunspel’s early cotton model and the US navy wool flannelette undershirt helped produce something we recognise today as the ubiquitous contemporary wardrobe staple: “Inevitably the two garments got it together, and in the cross-pollination of smart ideas, the T-shirt as we know it was born.”

An early-20th-century Sunspel undergarment
An early-20th-century Sunspel undergarment

In the 1950s, the T-shirt was evolving. In America, a short-sleeved military undergarment, unadorned with pockets, was making the jump from the services to Civvy Street in the wake of the end of the second world war. Sunspel created its crew-neck T-shirt model at that time and it has remained superficially unchanged, with a couple of significant improvements. Today, the shape is tailored to fit and, importantly, there are different silhouettes for men and for women. Also, the fabric used is now super-fine and comfortable, a unique jersey that is constructed from long-staple cotton from California.

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Sunspel’s manufacturing process is meticulous. Only the highest quality cotton fibres are selected, before being combed to remove any imperfections. The fibres are twisted together to create a fine yet strong thread, which is passed over a flame. The result is a smooth, luxurious yarn. 

Quality 82 is a unique fine jersey cotton and a descendant of the original lisle cotton Sunspel used on some of the earliest T-shirts ever made
Quality 82 is a unique fine jersey cotton and a descendant of the original lisle cotton Sunspel used on some of the earliest T-shirts ever made

The cotton fabric, known by the brand as Q82 (Quality 82), is knitted on a circular machine where blowers remove any loose fibres to ensure a flawless finish. The result is a garment that is not only extremely lightweight, soft and comfortable to wear, but one that will keep its shape and feel through multiple washes.

Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951
Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951

Today, of course, the T-shirt doesn’t ruffle any feathers and works equally well with jeans in classic James Dean style, or under a suit to take the edge off tailoring. It is also worn by women, one of several garments that was historically male but has made the gender jump (jeans being the other notable example).

The classic T-shirt remains a mainstay in the Sunspel collection
The classic T-shirt remains a mainstay in the Sunspel collection

But it wasn’t always the case. The journey from the functional US military undergarment that appeared around 1913 to the type of super-soft cotton crew-neck T-shirt made by Sunspel now has been an eventful one, and is loaded with cultural significance. The birth of teen youth culture is inextricably linked with the T-shirt. Appearances on Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild One) James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause) and the Jets in West Side Story helped align the T-shirt with the idea of youthful non-conformity, an idea that persisted into the 1970s with the ripped punk versions and the 1980s with slogganed styles.

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Today, of course, T-shirts can still have a whiff of the counterculture about them, and printed versions are still a favourite way of pledging allegiance to a rock band or political movement. And yet there is a parallel story that has emerged where the blank canvas of the T-shirt is celebrated for being exactly that. This is where Sunspel sits, celebrating the versatility and luxury of this perfect, simple piece of design. Here it is all about the elegance of the style and the quality of the make and materials.

The US navy of a century ago would no doubt have been baffled by the term “loungewear”. But that’s fashion evolution for you.

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