The T-shirt turns 100: A retrospective
- Article by: Kim Ode
- Star Tribune
- July 17, 2013 - 4:10 PM
In 1913, the U.S. Navy issued T-shirts to sailors to ensure that their chest hair — which tended to peek from the uniforms’ distinctive V-neck collars — would remain unseen.
Cue the slippery slope.
Below decks, the Navy then permitted “the dungaree outfit” — chambray shirt, white T-shirt and denim jeans — meant for working only, never to be worn while mingling with civilians.
Soon, other branches of the service began issuing the ever-practical T-shirt, with similar restrictions. All was well until servicemen returning from World War II wore their standard-issue white T-shirts as shirts. The look gained a following, then ignited at the sight of James Dean’s and Marlon Brando’s biceps.
The rest is fashion history.
Now, 100 years later, the T-shirt is as common as a cold. It can be chic or grungy, white or dyed, a mindless means of getting dressed or an object of great sentimental value. A T-shirt can be a canvas for incisive social commentary or a handy reminder of who’s with stupid.
In honor of its centennial, here’s a primer. Or in T-shirt lingo: My parents subscribed to the newspaper and all I got was this lousy story.
Six random questions (and answers)
Q: Why is it called a T-shirt?
A: Because it’s shaped like a T. (Yup, that’s all.)
Q: How many Americans have at least one T-shirt they refuse to throw away because of a sentimental reason?
A: 87 percent.
Q: What’s the most expensive T-shirt?
A: Perhaps a tee from Hermes made from specially treated crocodile skin, part of the French designer’s spring/summer 2013 collection. It retails for $91,500 in New York City. (Taxes? Add another $8,000.)
Q: Who inspired the first rock concert T-shirt?
A: The King, duh. One of Elvis Presley’s fan clubs produced one in the late 1950s.
Q: What is the Guinness World Record for “most T-shirts worn at once”?
A: A Sri Lankan gentleman, Sanath Bandara, donned 257 on Dec. 22, 2011.
Q: What technology made more than $50 million in four months in 1991?
A: The Hypercolor T-shirt that changed color if heated by, say, a palm print. Alas, the company was overwhelmed by the sudden success, and body heat patterns proved too, um, random.
Of course there’s a Minnesota connection
F. Scott Fitzgerald may have made the first literary reference to the T-shirt in his 1920 debut novel, “This Side of Paradise.” In it, Amory Blaine, a rich, cocky teenager from the Midwest, heads off to prep school in Connecticut with a wardrobe including “six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T shirt, one jersey ... ”
Threadless: Wear your idea
In 2000, two guys from Chicago started a website where folks could post T-shirt designs. Then they invited people to vote on them, and the best one got printed on T-shirts. Every few months, they’d sell out and start a new contest. Then every few weeks. Then every week. In 2008, Threadless was touted as “The Most Innovative Small Company in America” by Inc. magazine, with estimated sales of $30 million. The key, according to a Harvard business professor, is how Threadless mashes up people as designers, producers, buyers, marketers and wearers. Today, www.threadless.com releases 10 new designs each Monday, culled from submissions among its 2.5 million members. Oh, and they’re made in the USA.
T-shirts as souvenirs
A professor in Argentina in 1996 analyzed 2,100 T-shirts for a study about their role “in the creation of tourist destination images.” Among her findings:
“In the first place, it can be affirmed that the T-shirts are tangible souvenirs that prolong the tourist experience and, at the same time, allow for the symbolic appropriation of the place visited, evidencing the economic capacity of achieving a collective desire that is not possible for all.”
And you called it a lousy T-shirt.
Those notorious contests
Blame it on spring break. Palm Beach, Fla., is generally credited with being the place where, in the 1970s, buckets of water first were poured over the chests of bra-less coeds wearing thin white T-shirts. The mostly male audience then would judge which contestant had the highest grade point average.
The idea of wet-T-shirt contests actually originated in Spain in the 1940s during La Tomatina, where people throw juicy tomatoes at each other. The American version is so much (cough) cleaner.
Hooray for Hollywood
T-shirt sales reportedly took a swan dive in 1934, when in the movie “It Happened One Night,” Clark Gable took off his dress shirt only to reveal that he was bare-chested. No undershirt? A trend was born.
Then in 1951, Marlon Brando seethed in “A Streetcar Named Desire” while practically bursting out of his T-shirt. Sales soared.
In 1954, Brando took the look full throttle in “The Wild One,” and James Dean followed in 1955, sneering through “Rebel Without a Cause” in a white tee and leather jacket.
Why Oscar statues are still bare-chested, we’ll never know.
P-interest in T-shirts
Search on Pinterest for boards named “recycled T-shirts.” Witness what inventive minds come up with. Be amazed.
Teeing up a good investment
The top price currently sought on eBay for a concert T-shirt is $5,000 for a Metallica 1983 T-shirt from the “No Life ’Til Leather” era. (There’s also a Herman’s Hermits T-shirt for 99 cents.)
You talkin’ to me?
Among the more famous message T-shirts:
“I (heart) NY,” created in 1977 to promote the city.
Free Winona, by Winona Ryder when she was facing shoplifting charges, spawning a trend of “Free (somebody)” shirts.
“Vote for Pedro,” from “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Che Guevara’s image, symbolizing the underdog, or someone willing to die for a cause.
The Rolling Stones’ tongue.
Show us your favorite T-shirt
Everyone has a T-shirt they just love to wear. Take a selfie of your best tee and send it to email@example.com. We’ll feature a collection of the best reader T-shirts in a future publication.
Sources: “The White T” by Alice Harris, USA Today, antiqueweek.com, CustomInk.com, Military Times, the Navy Department Library, Houghton Mifflin Word Origins, New York Times, Wikipedia.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185
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