When Marlon Brando ripped a T-shirt from his body to ravish Vivien Leigh, in the 1951film, A Streetcar Named Desire, he started a trend that has gone from strength to strength. Until then, the T-shirt (aka the tank-top, the singlet and the vest) was viewed as an item of underclothing, particularly military issue underclothing, and a rather sordid and working class one at that. The T-shirt’s new iconic status was cemented in 1955 when James Dean sported a plain-white T-shirt under his leather jacket in the film, A Rebel Without a Cause. The concept of a T-shirt as a statement, whether of class, sexuality or political view, came to a crux when the sloganeering of the punk rock movement became an art form. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren created plain white T-shirts that carried messages (often obscene ones) in crude but eye-catching forms. Individual punks took to this idea, painting the plain white T-shirt with emulsion, blood, crayons or anything else that was handy and ripping, piercing or cutting T-shirts to help them create a properly punk look.
The movement spread rapidly beyond punks into high street printing shops and then returned to its musical roots when Frankie Goes To Hollywood grabbed the T-shirt and make it a sexually suggestive and politically confrontational statement with their ‘Frankie Says’ T-shirts where individuals filled in the rest of the slogan for themselves.
James Dean icon photograph by  , used under a creative commons attribution licence