Claim: Sales of men's undershirts declined sharply after actor Clark Gable appeared bare-chested in the 1934 film It Happened One Night.
Gable's most vital contribution to my carefree charm came five years before his trademark role - and 19 years before I was born - in "It Happened One Night."
Gable, in what was then considered a racy scene with Claudette Colbert, took his shirt off to reveal a bare chest. America gasped: Where is his undershirt?
In AMC's "The Hollywood Fashion Machine," host Jacqueline Bisset recalls the impact of that disrobing: "The underwear industry was literally paralyzed."
Geoffrey Beene adds: "When Gable, in that famous scene, took off his shirt and he had no undershirt on, he suddenly made all sorts of men realize, 'Why do I have to wear an undershirt if Clark Gable doesn't wear an undershirt?' "
Freed from the unneeded garment that bound them, American men found one-shirt-at-a-time happiness.
[W]hat's not on the screen can have as much impact as what is. In 1934, after Clark Gable undressed for bed in ''It Happened One Night,'' sales of men's undershirts dropped 75 percent. If Gable didn't need one, why should other American men?
Origins: The tale about Clark Gable and the demise of the men's undershirt industry is another 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.
After Clark Gable removed his shirt to reveal a bare chest in a famous scene with Claudette Colbert in the 1934 film It Happened One Night, American men abandoned the wearing of undershirts in droves, so much so that undershirt sales declined by 75%, undergarment manufacturers were "devastated," and the industry didn't recover until the requirements of World War II uniforms got men back into the habit of wearing undershirts. How do we know this is true? Because for years, newspaper articles and television programs have been telling us it's true. How do they know it's true? They don't ever tell us that — it's simply assumed to be true because, well, it's always been true.
First off, what documentation supports the claim that "sales of men's undershirts dropped 75 percent" after It Happened One Night hit the theaters? We'd expect to see someone cite 1930s sales figures from undergarment manufacturers, offer statements made by garment industry executives of the era, reproduce some contemporary newspaper accounts, or even just quote an old-timer who could confirm "Yeah, we all stopped wearing T-shirts back around '34 after we seen that there Clark Gable movie." Nobody ever does, though.
Another factor to consider is that even if undershirt sales did drop dramatically after 1934, how would we know this decline was directly attributable to the image of a bare-chested Clark Gable? — that some other factor didn't cause the sales slump, and the connection to It Happened One Night was merely a case of fallacious post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning? (The year 1934 is often cited as the beginning of the "height of the Depression," for example. Perhaps men didn't really stop wearing undershirts then, but due to severe economic conditions they merely stopped buying new ones as often as they had before.)
In any case, how can we account for a single film's having such a profound impact upon the ingrained dressing habits of American males? A 75% drop in sales would mean that a shirtless Clark Gable had to have influenced (directly or indirectly) far more than just the usual group of young urbanites who form the target audience typically receptive to fads. Young and old, city dwellers
and country folk, rich and poor: All of them would had to have been just waiting for an excuse to shuck that second shirt in 1934, a huge percentage of American men tired of wearing T-shirts but unwilling to abandon them until a popular film star gave them "permission" to do so.
Proponents of the It Happened One Night claim make the mistake of equating new clothing fads with the shedding of existing patterns of dress. Sure, popular entertainments have long had an influence on fashion, but that influence generally affects only a small part of the population (i.e., the generations not yet old enough to be set in their ways) and involves the wearing of new styles of existing clothing (such as shorter skirts) or previously uncommon articles of apparel (such as capes or floppy hats), not the sudden casting off of long-worn functional articles of clothing. Women didn't abandon brassieres after seeing Clark Gable romance a braless Jean Harlow in 1932's Red Dust, and men didn't stop wearing "outershirts" after Marlon Brando popularized the leather jacket and white T-shirt look in 1954's The Wild One.
Perhaps rather than looking for a cause-and-effect relationship here, we should regard the decline in undershirt-wearing (if one did indeed occur) as yet another instance of a common phenomenon: Popular figures who reflect shifts in societal norms come to be seen as the causative agents who brought those shifts about, even though they were already well underway. Men had started to give up on wearing hats before John F. Kennedy supposedly appeared at his inauguration bareheaded (another legend in itself), but his prominence meant people later identified him as the focal point from which everyone else picked up the change. So maybe when Clark Gable appeared sans undershirt in It Happened One Night, he was following a trend, not starting one. Or just maybe there was no trend at all, and the whole story was concocted by a publicity agent as a ploy to bolster Gable's appeal at contract renewal time.