In Praise of the T-shirt

Summer in the city.

 

Today, a post in honor of the humble and ubiquitous T-shirt.  Maybe it’s because the weather is warming up, and everyone is taking off various outer layers to reveal the common denominator beneath.  Or, actually, it probably isn’t that, because the T-shirt knows no season.  It is, along with jeans, the great American (or at this point, global) wardrobe staple.  And like denim, it can take many forms.  It is our most loved and hated garment: simple and classic, or sloppy and thoughtless.  It is worn by people who love fashion, and people who don’t think for more than a minute about what they wear.

We all started talking about T-shirts in part because of the whole Marc Jacobs store graffiti incident.  Marc Jacobs, both cleverly and asshole-ishly, used a T-shirt to turn an incident into an image–an image that he owned.  And he then sold that image in the form of a T-shirt for a whole bunch of money:

 

Marc Jacobs’s $689 T-shirt.

 

But then, of course, his right to ownership of that image was disputed, in the form of another T-shirt:

 

Kidult’s $10 version.

 

Both T-shirts display the same image.  Both are probably made of cotton (and maybe a little of something else).  Both are, essentially, T-shirts.  But they articulate different positions, in part by virtue of their price tags.  They are about something that is not purely the shirt.  And this, of course, is what T-shirts have become known best as: vehicles.

T-shirts were invented in the 19th century, and worn as undergarments.  They weren’t really worn alone until the 20th century, and initially this was mostly done by factory and farm workers, who needed to be clothed, but who worked under sweat-inducing, nice-shirt-ruining conditions.

 

1909 Factory Worker

1909 Camillus Knife Factory Worker.

 

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the T-shirt, like denim, became fashionable by nature of its association with a working class aesthetic.  Marlon Brando is, of course, one of our Greatest American T-Shirt Wearers:

 

Who would not want to look like this guy?

 

A Streetcar Named Desire helped make the t-shirt popular, but it also reflected what “cool” guys in the ’50s were wearing:

 

from Bruce Davidson’s, “Brooklyn Gang.”

 

The T-shirt became an item of clothing that didn’t necessarily signify toughness or grit, but still had a lingering whiff of those things.  It was, in other words, cool.

 

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen looking cool, yet approachable.

 

In the ’60s and ’70s the development of stretchier, more durable screen-printing inks helped make the T-shirt into a sort of blank canvas, or a sheet of paper.  The T-shirt was pure, unadorned; it had no buttons or collars or decorative stitching. And so, the T-shirt became a means of displaying printed text and imagery on the body. Specifically, though not exclusively, text and imagery that related to three things: music, politics, and advertising.

I’m not going to talk too much about the advertising of consumer products, though this is obviously one of the most important uses to which the T-shirt was put.  But really, political T-shirts and band T-shirts are forms of advertising too.  They just advertise something a bit more intangible.

 

Act Up Rally, 1993.

 

The branding of bands obviously owes a lot to the T-shirt.  Let us use, as a case study, the classic, and easily recognized Black Flag t-shirt.  Would bands have had logos without T-shirts to print them on?  Maybe.  But the T-shirt allowed the whole idea of a band to be condensed into an image, which a fan could then integrate into his or her body.  Who can see four staggered vertical black bars now and not think of Black Flag?

 

Not even an actual t-shirt.  Just the image of the idea of this T-shirt.

 

And because it is now impossible to think of those black bars without thinking of Black Flag, those Black Bars are fodder for jokes.  You guys, there are so many Black Flag parody T-shirts out there.  This is really just a tiny sample:

 

Alex might have to buy this one.

 

Gaga Black Flag.

 

Bieber Flag.

 

Black Flag is not the only band to have an enduring T-shirt design.  People are still loving the Joy Division T-shirt, too.

 

This photograph looks really old, but it is not.

 

Disney being no exception to the Joy Division-love:

 

I know everyone hates this shirt, but can we all agree that it is really funny?

 

Somewhere along the way the black T-shirt rose in popularity.  The word (the phrase?) “T-shirt” might once have conjured a classic white, but it makes me think of basic black.  This might be in part because I wore a black T-shirt every day for about 10 years of my life.  The shift to black may have something to do with the T-shirt becoming not-underwear.  Black just makes it seem like a more substantial piece of clothing.

 

 

And now, a bonanza of current T-shirt styles:

 

no more fish

’80s-style political T.

 

More ’80s-style.

 

Topher

That is a wide, long V.

 

Turning back into an undergarment, sort of.

 

The return of the cropped T-shirt.

 

The over-sized T.

 

It has become harder and harder to actually distinguish the T-shirt from the non-T-shirt.  Aren’t most things we wear now some form of T-shirt?

 

Is this a T-shirt?

About Terry LaFrazia

Friend of a tailor. Interested in process and content.

2 comments

  1. I love a T-shirt. Great post, though I thought you could have gotten into the mechanics of the well-worn or artificially well-worn shirt as desirable. Or the Urban Outfitters spate of faux authentic ironic slogans to match with an earlier style of comfortable thrift store T-shirt humor.

  2. Andrea, YES! There is so much to say about the T-shirt! I’d love to see those elements included in a post.

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