100 years of T-shirts: Fashion icon celebrates centennial

(CBS News) At CustomInk's headquarters just outside Washington D.C., T-shirts are serious business. The company has been cranking out shirts, sweats and hats for 14 years.

Marlon Brando in the 1951 film, "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Warner Brothers

This summer, they're celebrating the 100th anniversary of their number-one seller: The T-shirt.

The U.S. was first introduced to T-shirts by the Navy 100 years ago. In its 1913 uniform regulations, the Navy wrote the "light undershirt shall be of the lightest-weight cotton consistent with durability . . . it shall have sleeves only long enough to cover the armpit."

The first reference to the T-shirt first appeared in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1920. They sold for 24 cents in the 1938 Sears catalog.

But it was in the 1951 film "A Streetcar Named Desire" when Marlon Brando turned the traditional undershirt into a fashion phenomenon.

Four years later, James Dean followed suit in "Rebel Without a Cause."

But, over the years, that plain white tee evolved into a whole lot more.

"Clearly the T-shirt has cultural impact, which you don't say about many other items of clothing," said Billboard editor Joe Levy. "It's not just an item of clothing. It can be a billboard, it can be a meme. It can be a novelty item. It's a lot of different things in one."

In 1977 graphic designer Milton Glaser created this simple logo for the New York State Department of Commerce's promotional campaign.
CustomInk

CustomInk has put together its 100 most iconic T-shirts of all time, including super heroes, cult heroes, and New York state's venerable marketing campaign, "I ♥ NY."

The company's recent survey found nearly nine in every 10 Americans (87 percent) own at least one T-shirt they refuse to get rid of it because of a sentimental attachment.

There are even T-shirts which, as fashion items, are out of reach for most of us. Earlier this year theawl.com posted the $91,500 price tag for a crocodile skin T-shirt on sale at the Hermes store on New York's Madison Avenue.

Whether cotton or crocodile, the T-shirt is officially 100 -- constantly evolving into something new.

For Vinita Nair's full report, watch the video in the player above.