The Walls of Jericho are up and Clark Gable begins undressing.
Off comes his sweater ...
... his tie ...
... his shirt and, what, no undershirt!?
An industry dies.
That’s what they say at least.
Now had he worn an undershirt Gable wouldn’t have been wearing what I think of as an undershirt, the modern T-shirt, but would have had on one of those old time undershirts with the thin shoulder straps, more closely resembling the present-day tank top.
They had come into vogue during World War I, replacing the then standard one-piece union suit of underwear. That change is typically attributed to comfort, or rather discomfort. Either the union suit just didn’t feel right under a uniform or the single piece of underwear made it tougher to get at the louses that infiltrated the trenches.
After Gable killed the undershirt in It Happened One Night the underwear industry supposedly went into an uproar as sales plummeted, not to recover until World War II ushered in the modern T-shirt.
That’s the legend. Look, I can document Gable's hand in all of this:
Sales drop 40% thanks to Gable in It Happened One Night according to this article found in the April 3, 1956 edition of the Daytona Beach Morning Journal:
Sales drop 50% according to this article found in the August 14, 1949 edition of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
Sales drop 73% in eight months according to this very specific article found in the March 18, 1955 edition of the Cumberland Evening Times:
Sales drop a whopping 80% according to this article found in the April 19, 1956 edition of the Alton Democrat:
The modern version was summarized in the March 6, 2008 edition of Time:
At least they mention that the legend has never been verified. The closest we come to verification in the earlier clips is the first one, attributing a 40% drop in sales to unnamed “B.V.D. executives.”
Snopes.com took on the legend but was unable to prove it as myth. They correctly wonder that if any such drop in undershirt sales actually took place, how it could possibly be attributed directly to Gable and It Happened One Night. It can’t.
They explain that Gable’s undershirt is an “example of how easily a piece of information can become an accepted ‘fact’ whose validity is never questioned despite any real evidence that it is indeed true.”
Those who spread the fact cannot prove it. Those who disagree cannot disprove it. This is how conspiracy theories are born. Both sides can only offer evidence though they usually only offer supporting evidence.
My own digging leads me to believe Clark Gable had no measurable effect on the undergarment industry. I can't prove that because nobody saw fit to properly defend the allegation one way or the other before it became fact by decree. But I can accumulate evidence, which is what now follows.
First this tongue-in-cheek clipping from July 1934, published just five months after It Happened One Night was released, presents itself as not only the earliest, but the best, origin to our story:
The Daily News-Record that they refer to was actually a specialty publication within the textile industry:
But if this is the origin to the Clark Gable undershirt myth you'll notice it doesn't include any statistics. It doesn't even say sales have dropped. It says that the industry is "alarmed" and that "this frets the trade," and it says so with a bit of mirth as I read it. Maybe the industry source was alarmed, but the journalist who put the piece together for publication sure wasn't.
Towards the end of the Snopes.com article another issue is mentioned that may have been more responsible than Clark Gable for any pain caused in the undergarment industry: The Great Depression.
In September 1934 there was a textile workers strike that lasted 22 days. “The shortage of piece goods, due to strikes, has seriously affected the underwear business,” said the New York Times in their issue dated September 24, 1934.
Also in 1934 there was a voluntary cotton-adjustment program and the Bankhead Cotton Control Act, which was passed in April of that year. The U.S. government was trying to raise the price of cotton and it cut the supply in doing so.
The disappearance of the undershirt is never reported in the business columns, just on the entertainment pages. The main concern of the Underwear Institute (yes, there was such a thing) in 1935 was the projected surge in women’s underwear sales which had sputtered five years earlier.
While I could not discover any specific document detailing sales of men’s undershirts (could this be the magic document?), it’s worth noting that general spending trends were way down by 1934-1935, when Gable’s lack of undershirt also would have wreaked it’s greatest havoc upon the industry:
That graphic is from the Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970. Note the column numbered 426 for Men and Boys Clothing. While there is an uptick in business each year from 1934 through 1937, there is a drop from 1931 to ‘34 and an even more dramatic drop from 1929, the year the Stock Market crashed and all the misery started to unfold.
It Happened One Night was a gift to Depression-era audiences. But if Clark Gable’s bare chest had sparked a trend then, barring that single 1934 article shown above, the media didn’t immediately pick up on the craze. No representative of the garment industry, from the Underwear Institute on down, felt any need to publicly place blame on Gable, nor even express general concern about the demise of the undershirt after that first bit of worry from the Daily News Record was published in '34.
While there was occasional mention of Gable’s bare chest causing industry upheaval in the movie gossip columns of the late 1930s a Lantern search covering the the popular fan magazines and trade journals of the day doesn’t spot the trend. In fact, it doesn't spot a mention until decades after the fact. A search of the New York Times archives for Clark Gable and undergarment calls up these results:
While the Times had covered the “Clark Gable style” since 1934, you can see that that style didn’t include mention of an undershirt until 1938. That 1938 result is the first one to pop up in the Times archives if you substitute the word undershirt for undergarment in your search.
In 1938 Hal Hode, an assistant to Harry Cohn at Columbia, the company that had produced It Happened One Night, spoke at the advertising and marketing forum of the Advertising Club:
At least Hode seems reasonable in claiming that the undershirt industry only lost thousands of dollars. Thousands of dollars would be a blip, even in the thirties. He also adds a bit of It Happened One Night legend providing a positive push for the bus industry that didn't catch on as well as the undershirt gimmick. Finally, note that Lost Horizon was also a Columbia film and realize where Mr. Hode’s loyalties lie.
A year later, in 1939, the first edition of America at the Movies by Margaret Farrand Thorp was published. I can't be sure of the wording in that first edition, but by the 1970 edition it was: “The story has been told so often that it must be true that the fashion of going without undershirts began when Clark Gable undressed in the tourist camp in It Happened One Night” (117).
In Iris Barry’s 1939 review of the original edition of Thorp's book for The Saturday Review she remarks that “it is amusing to hear that if Clark Gable appears without an undershirt, the manufacturers and garment workers are driven to protest for fear that millions of people might do likewise and go undershirtless.”
The wording of Barry's 1939 take on Thorp seems to jibe best with the 1934 article that originated from the New York Post. In any case, the references began picking up steam and credence after Hode's speech and Thorp's book. Hode's percentage grew with the passing years with the later mentions taking on the air of fact.
For those wishing to positively confirm that Clark Gable killed undershirts my research points to two potential sources, neither of which I could lay hands on: Profits of Underwear Manufacturers, 1918-1942 (those near Boston or Chicago may want to try to locate a rare copy); or, a direct reference from the Daily News Record, especially one coming between February 1934, when It Happened One Night was released, and September 1934, when the textile trade publication was mentioned by the Post.
I believe the undershirt industry probably was hard hit in 1934. Just like many other industries during the Great Depression. It appears that cotton goods in general, including undergarments or underwear such as undershirts, may have been especially hurt at the end of 1934 into 1935 by the Textile Workers Strike and New Deal farming legislation. I don’t believe Clark Gable or It Happened One Night had anything to do with it, at least until Hal Hode said so in 1938. Margaret Thorp picked up the idea and carried it into film circles.
I could be wrong. But I feel more confident about those thoughts than I do the varying and unattributed statistics appearing in many of the press clippings included on this page.
I'm too late to tell you to enjoy Clark Gable on TCM today--that day has passed--but be sure to check out what other film bloggers are talking about at the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon at Sittin' On a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film.