T-shirt celebrates 100 years of dressing the U.S.
Consider the T-shirt. In fact, consider just one T-shirt, the plain white T-shirt. So many things it can say:
■ I have just built America and/or won the war, and now I’m going to take a shower.
■ Hep jive, cool cat. Yeah.
■ What? I’m clothed, aren’t I? Sheesh.
■ I am the realest and I’m going to tell you all about it in this freestyle rap.
And that’s just one type of T-shirt, pulled from a stack of seemingly infinite choices — the tie-dye and the paint-spattered, the concert memento and the 5K participation prize, the freebie, the ironic slogan, the college pride, the die-hard fan.
What began as underwear has evolved into the most nuanced and necessary element of most wardrobes. And this year is its 100th birthday.
Or rather, its 100th-ish birthday. The number is a little arbitrary, since T-shaped tops have been around for centuries. Heck, knights wore linen and wool versions of the garment underneath their chain mail to absorb sweat and prevent chafing.
But myriad streams of invention and industry — Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793, introduction of the circular knitting machine in 1863 — met in 1913, when the U.S. Navy made white cotton T-shirts its official undergarment, supplied to sailors by Fruit of the Loom. This, at least as far as far as Internet T-shirt sellers are concerned, is unofficially considered the birth year.
And a lot has happened since then. In 1932, the University of Southern California football team asked Jockey International to make printed T-shirts for its players to wear under their pads, paving the way for “I’m with stupid” and “Vote for Pedro” decades down the road.
The U.S. Army made white cotton T-shirts its official undershirt in 1942, just months after indelible images showed the soldiers, woken early on Dec. 7, 1941, by Japanese bombs, who had raced up to the guns on ship decks in the clothes they were wearing: khaki pants and white cotton undershirts.
Even after the war, they kept wearing the shirts, which had become “the emblem of manliness,” wrote Alice Harris in “The White T.” Seizing on that, Sears, Roebuck and Co., in a late-1940s catalog, sold T-shirts with the slogan “You needn’t be a soldier to have your own personal T-shirt.”
Which is all well and good, but let’s talk Marlon Brando. “A Streetcar Named Desire,” 1951, Stanley Kowalski yelling for Stella. That T-shirt, all sweaty and worked-in, could not have been tighter. Yowza.
Then, in 1953, Brando as Johnny Strabler in “The Wild One”: “What are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?” He was wearing a white T-shirt, it should go without saying.
This is because T-shirts started doing the saying. They said, “Keep your fedoras and button-downs, ya squares,” and “We are young and this can’t be all there is,” and “Watch out.”
Wearing underwear as outerwear, a sublime act of rebellion, forecast a tsunami to come.
These kids today! They have no respect! A 1956 T-shirt, widely considered the first concert T, showed Elvis Presley playing guitar. How appropriate. That no-good greaser leading youth astray, and on a T-shirt! The plates shifted.
John F. Kennedy, in moments of repose on the beach with his family, was often photographed in T-shirts. If anything could have forecast a changing world, it was that — youth triumphant. Their uniform: the T-shirt.
(It’s tempting to say that T-shirts are the ultimate in populist apparel, except right now, at any Hermès store in the world, it’s possible to buy a black crocodile leather T-shirt for $91,500. So… nope.)
The 1959 invention of better ink for mass screen printing meant that, years or decades down the road, a kid could sweat through the concert and then buy the T-shirt — to show allegiance, to say he was there, to be part of the tribe, to make tangible her golden memories of some perfect moments. YEAHHHHHH!! AC/DC!!!
Plus, T-shirts go great with jeans.
“They go with pretty much everything,” said Susan Lettman, owner of Klik Clothing in Grand Junction. “And they never go out of style. They’re easy to throw on. You can layer them, put on a blazer over them, dress them up or down. It’s endless possibilities.”
“It’s a timeless classic,” added Beckie Nelson, owner of Pinque in Grand Junction. “They keep improving cotton, we’re getting softer and softer cotton, so they’re really wearable. You can put graphics on them, we see T-shirts with designs and studs and jewels. And then it just always goes back to jeans and a T-shirt. It’s the casual equivalent of the little black dress.”
In fact, that seems to be one of America’s gifts to the world, jeans and a T-shirt. Especially the T-shirt. It is entirely possible, this very day, to go to a small town in, say, Burundi and see someone wearing, for example, an “Eau Claire 10K Fun Run 2001” T-shirt. Who even knows the route that shirt took from Wisconsin to Africa. The point is, it happens. And the point is, we mark our passage through this world in T-shirts.
It’s a wiggly thing to try getting a definitive number for how many T-shirts people own, how many people are buying. In 2004, according to fashion historian Dennita Sewell, more than two billion T-shirts were sold worldwide, and that was nine years ago! The number can only have increased, if a casual mosey through Mesa Mall is any indication.
The T-shirt has become our de facto top half, like it or not. No less a fashion authority than Tim Gunn seems to have mixed feelings. In “Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible” he writes, “T-shirts have become our national uniform, and it’s often not until we take a trip to a different part of the world that we realize how underdressed the T-shirt can make us look.”
Except, it’s difficult to know what part of the world he’s referring to — the Mariana Trench, maybe? — because T-shirts are everywhere. And so easy to wear! There’s a reason people say they’re going to just throw on a T-shirt and be ready to go in two minutes. T-shirts are easy. They’re comfortable. And to the fashion purists who huff that they’re sloppy and unpresentable, well: No souvenirs for you.
Because is there an easier memento from a trip? Go somewhere, buy the T-shirt.
It’s cliché. But it’s how to self-define and proclaim to the world, “I exist”: Look! I went to Disney World and it was awesome.
A T-shirt is one of the first items of clothing that gets slipped over a baby’s head, and from that moment, it’s onward through life in a T-shirt. Illumination, please, Carl Sandburg:
“My shirt is a token and symbol,
more than a cover for sun and rain,
my shirt is a signal,
and a teller of souls.”
People keep favorite T-shirts, even when they’re so thin that they hold together only through the grace of covalent bonds, even when they’re practically unwearable, because it’s not just a T-shirt. It’s that night, and that summer, and that boy, and that concert. T-shirts are mileposts of affiliations and allegiances, events and ideas, saving us all from faceless anonymity.
Even the plain white T-shirt. (And as a side note: Those with more money than sense can pay $120 for A.P.C.‘s Hip Hop T-shirt, created with Kanye West and currently sold out online. It is a plain white T-shirt. With nothing on it. Plain. White. $120.)
The plain white T-shirt, tossed on without a thought, speaker of volumes, says no less than this: I’m alive, and I am dressed.