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T-Shirts: From Brando to Brand X

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The T-shirt was invented by Theodore T. (Teddy) Tetrazinni, a 19th-Century inventor obsessed with the letter T who also invented the T-square, the T-intersection and the T-bone steak.

Well, not really . . .

In fact, the origin of the T-shirt is about as mysterious and obscure as, say, the speech patterns of Vice President Dan Quayle, the enduring interest in Vanna White, the legal defense of Jim Bakker. . .

“The name, ‘T-shirt,’ may not necessarily stem from the shirt’s literal shape,” said Lester Schwartz, vice president of advertising for Fruit of the Loom, which also makes the BVD brand and is the largest T-shirt manufacturer on earth. Indeed, the shirt may even predate the letter T itself.

“There are indications,” he said, “that a garment resembling today’s T-shirt was worn as far back as the 2nd Century A.D. by Hadrian, emperor of Rome.”

Schwartz, speaking by phone from Fruit of the Loom headquarters in Bowling Green, Ky., culled his information from an article titled “A Brief History of the T-Shirt.” It is just about the only explanation of the shirt’s possible beginnings he has found.

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And if the image of Hadrian and his pals strolling about in undershirts instead of togas seems a bit hard to swallow, consider this tale:

“One source,” Schwartz continued, “says the name T-shirt originated in the 17th Century when longshoremen in Annapolis, Md., began wearing collarless, short-sleeved shirts while unloading shiploads of tea. The collarless neckline was more comfortable because the loose tea leaves would collect under shirt collars, making the workers itch.”

If this is true, then how did the shirt’s name acquire a capital T and a hyphen, instead of the arguably more logical tea-shirt ? It seems, Schwartz said, that garments dubbed “Training Shirts for Gentlemen” in a 1938 Sears, Roebuck catalogue were abbreviated to “T-shirts” in the 1941 catalogue (they were three for a dollar).

Training shirts for gentlemen? James Dean would roll in his grave.

All questions of origin aside, it is fair to say that the white, cotton, pocketless T-shirt really took off in popularity after World War II, when U.S. Navy men began wearing the things as outer shirts after returning to civilian life. James Dean, Elvis and other ‘50s icons subsequently turned it into a fashion, and ‘60s notions of art a la Andy Warhol turned it into a blank canvas. Or, if that sounds too highfalutin, at the very least, a walking billboard.

“Right. People seem to be willing to wear just about any words or any image on their chest--the more topical, of course, the better. It’s a billion-dollar industry--and that’s just domestic,” said Jack Wood, a Southern California bankruptcy attorney who recently spent two years on a case involving a personalized T-shirt business.

“You can exploit anything with a shirt,” Wood said. “The day after the recent earthquake, for example, they were selling T-shirts on the streets of San Francisco proclaiming ‘I Survived the Big One.’ Twelve bucks a pop.”

And tens of thousands of other sentiments are exploited on American chests for as little as $6 and as much as $250 or more (for custom shirts). Among them: “Boss Lady,” “The Best Man for the Job Is a Woman,” “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” “I Don’t Do Mornings,” “Are We Having Fun Yet?,” “Havin’ Some Fun Now,” “He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins,” “To Err Is Human: To Really Foul Things Up Takes a Computer,” “Old Lawyers Never Die, They Just Lose Their Appeal,” “I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy,” “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping,” “40 Happens,” “50 Happens,” “This Is What 50 Looks Like,” “My Kids Take After Me; They Take My Charge Cards, They Take My Clothing, They Take My Car Keys,” “Fishing Is Not a Matter of Life and Death: It’s Much More Important,” “Couch Potato,” “I Still Believe in Santa Claus,” “Are We Rich Yet?” “No Condo, No MBA, No BMW,” “A Great Mom Is Worth Her Weight in Chocolate Chip Cookies” and “Just B.U.”

Just what makes people choose to identify themselves by whichever words or images adorn their person? Is it a way to “Just B.U.”?

“It’s a way of advertising something about yourself,” Wood said. “Like ‘I like such-and-such product,’ or “I heard such-and-such musician,” or ‘This is my kind of humor.’ Or, in the cases of designer names, like, for instance, Sergio Valente, I suppose it’s a way of saying ‘I have enough money to buy clothing manufactured by whoever owns the copyright to the name, ‘Sergio Valente.’ ”

Wood maintains that he is one of a vanishing breed--a devotee of the unadorned pocketless white T-shirt. Aside from, he pointed out, many Chicanos, (“who appreciate not only the plain T-shirt but two of my other favorite pieces of clothing, the Pendleton and the khaki pants”) Wood claims to be one of the few men left who embraces the plain white T-shirt aesthetic. The term “personalized T-shirt,” the attorney asserts, is ironic.

“People simply don’t understand how de personalizing it is to identify themselves by images or what they imagine to be clever slogans on shirts!” he said. “It’s really a form of conforming, rather than a means of making an individual statement. But people think it’s personalizing, and that may be a comment on the total lack of character they really have.”

Wood’s challenging words could not be further from the view of Kim Mejia, owner for the last 10 years of one of the Valley’s best-known personalized T-shirt stores, Chickenshirt of Encino.

“It’s fun ,” she said. “People like it. It’s a way they can express themselves, and it makes a great gift item. Most of the time people come in to look for something for someone else, and that makes it fun.”

Aside from selling shirts pre-printed with the usual popular phrases and iconography, Chickenshirt of Encino employs two commercial artists to custom-design the T-shirt (or sweat shirt or nightshirt) with one’s whim. Occasionally, those whims tend to be a bit off-color.

“There are the obvious things that you can’t print,” Mejia continued. “If somebody comes in and wants to use the f-word and an individual’s name, we stay away from it. But I have printed something as general as using the f-word in front of ‘Insurance Companies.’ ”

Anything more exotic?

“Medfly shirts are big. We have these little flies and put them all over a shirt. Oh, this is a good one--we had a customer who had us put $3,000 in hundred dollar bills on a long T-shirt. We pressed the bills all over the shirt, and wrapped it up as a present.”

Not exactly something you can wear on the street.

“Well, we had an attorney who listed all the things he won on a case once. And I’m doing a takeoff on the seven dwarfs,” she said, pulling out seven T-shirts and reading a name from each: “Let’s see . . . there’s Happy, Sleazy, Sneezy, Frumpy, Nerdy, Lusty, Sexy, Doc, Horny. For some kind of a wild party, I guess.”

Mejia recently purchased on consignment a number of new shirts bound to provoke controversy. A Soviet entrepreneur who evidently grasped the finer points of capitalism sold her a rack of white T-shirts printed variously with mastheads of Soviet newspapers, “ Glasnost, " a woman with a red star and sickle proclaiming “Motherland Wants You,” and, most remarkably, the term “party animal” (complete with the happy little man normally associated with those words) modified by the large, red-lettered word, “Communist.”

Cashing in on perestroika ? Now that’s capitalism.

“None of them are offensive,” cautioned Mejia. “ ‘Communist Party Animal’ is the No. 1 seller.”

And the cotton T-shirt is possibly the No. 1 selling garment in the world--with no sign of letting up, according to Fruit of the Loom’s Schwartz.

“We are,” he said, “unable to produce enough for the demand in 1989. There is tremendous interest, both as an outer shirt, for that layered look and as an undershirt. I am personally surprised that the interest has maintained as long as it has and continues to grow and grow. At one time I thought how many printed or decorated T-shirts could people want? But apparently there’s no limit.”

Certainly the practical advantage of the shirt cannot be minimized as a reason for its popularity. After all, this “very fine utilitarian garment,” as Schwartz called it, is easy to fit, absorbs perspiration, protects any shirt worn over it (thus reducing laundering expenses, which can be considerable in the case of dry-cleaned dress-shirts), keeps the wearer cooler in summer (by absorbing and passing the moisture out to the air) and warmer in winter. It does not tap dance.

Beyond that, Schwartz admitted to being baffled by the proclivity of humans to wear words and images on their cotton-wrapped chests:

“I have seen articles which talk about the personalized shirt as a form of self expression. But I have no comment. . . . I just don’t know why. Maybe people are essentially just shy or timid, and this is one way they can spout it out. I’d have to be a psychoanalyst to come up with that answer.”

Does this puzzlement suggest that the premiere Fruit of the Loom T-shirt authority--one of the vice presidents of the American underwear empire--does not wear personalized T-shirts?

“I confess,” he said, “that I wear plain T-shirts--and only as undergarments. . . . I don’t have a need to express myself on a T-shirt. I find other ways to do it.”

Hmmmm. . . Those last two sentences might make a good slogan--say, for a T-shirt.


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