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The origin of the surf t-shirt, or "surfer t-shirt" if you prefer, can be traced back to Europe in the early 20th century. During World War I, U.S. soldiers noticed that European troops were wearing comfortable, lightweight cotton undershirts in the hot summer months. It didn't take long for the Americans--who were wearing heavy wool uniforms--to catch on. Because of the simple shape that resembles the letter "T", these undershirts soon became known to Americans as "t-shirts".surf links
At about this time surfing was enjoying its first renaissance in Hawaii. Surfing had been popular with Hawaiian natives until missionaries showed up in the mid-19th century. They disapproved of surfing and consequently, most natives had given it up by 1890. But thanks to guys like Duke Kahanamoku and other early surfers like George Freeth, the sport was re-born. We all know Duke as the father of modern surfing, and Freeth is credited with introducing the sport to Southern California in 1907
But the t-shirt was still considered underwear, and it took such Hollywood notables as James Dean, John Wayne and Marlon Brando to help change that. In 1951, Brando shocked moviegoers when his t-shirt was ripped off his chest in A Streetcar Named Desire. A few years later, the t-shirt became not only accepted as a stand alone outer garment, but actually very cool when James Dean starred in A Rebel Without A Cause.
In Matt Warshaw's Encyclopedia of Surfing credit is given to Gordon & Smith for having invented the surfer t-shirt. To promote his new brand of surfboards in 1961, Floyd Smith of Surfboards by Gordon and Smith invited local surfers to bring white t-shirts into his San Diego surf shop. There, he had the now-familiar Gordon and Smith logo screened on the t-shirt backs at no charge. Everyone owned several white t-shirts in the early '60s. The surf culture was gaining popularity and many wanted to be identified with it, whether they surfed or not..