I’m not one who often feels compelled to wax nostalgic at every turn, though give me 60’s Motown music over anything before or since. Undeniably, however, growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s in idyllic small-town America, life was much simpler in just about every way imaginable. Yeah, so we didn’t have modern conveniences like movies in the car, pizza delivery or electric toothbrushes (except that pre-historic one at the dentist’s office). Neither did we engage personal shoppers, dispense with knives because of the advent of bagel slicers (as we’d never heard of bagels), enjoy the euphoria of heated car seats on a winter day, avail ourselves of drive-in dog washes, sip $5.00 coffee or, as God is my witness, live attached to a cell phone. Instead we had “party-lines” with a phone shared with another household. Really. Somehow, though, we made do. For the many millions of us (doomed?) to be forever classified, categorized, criticized and sometimes castigated as the single great demographic “Baby Boomers”, such was the case.
If there would be a single item emblematic of those simpler times it was the plain, white T-shirt, be it a Jockey™, Fruit of the Loom™, BVD™ or otherwise. Without any research I know that these ubiquitous garments are so named because of the ‘T’ shape of the body and sleeves. Back in the day, they all had short sleeves, and a collarless, round ‘crew’ neck. These were the days, of course, before every commercial enterprise on planet Earth had its own t-shirts silk-screened. To my recollection, back in the day these garments were all plain, white and primarily made of cotton.
A utilitarian item to be sure, a ‘tee’ was not part of a uniform per se, but nevertheless it was what we (at least the boys) wore just about every day after school (and sometimes to school) when organizing neighborhood games. Yes, we organized our own with no parental involvement. Shocking, isn’t it? I digress.
For the real tough, teenage guys, all trying to emulate the estimable James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause I suppose, nothing was cooler than rolling up a pack of cigarettes in the shirt sleeve of a white T-shirt. This, of course, was before the inherent evils of smoking were explained to us which would likely have changed . . . nothing. However, as fashion seems to be ever-changing, the simple T-shirt was about to undergo an evolution--no make that a revolution-- that rivals any in sartorial history other than perhaps the dismissal of the powdered wig for men. Perhaps.
Along came silk-screening followed by even more sophisticated means of making the simple T-shirt into something much more. All of a sudden, or so it seemed then, T-shirts morphed from basic body covering to clothing that could become anything that the mind could conjure. They began to be available in virtually any color. Then long sleeves were added after which both long and short were removed for the ‘sleeveless’ look, though qualified no long as a ‘tee’. Should one be called an ‘I shirt’? Certainly, the T-shirt became useful in political campaigns and as inexpensive advertisement for a plethora of products we couldn’t do without. Supposedly. And this was merely the beginning. As the sixties exploded into the seventies, T-shirts became walking political statements of various points of view as they continue to be today. Some are very clever and some are just instruments of ignorance and/or boorishness. Some are vulgar and cross the line, wherever it seems to currently be drawn by a society that seems almost incapable of being shocked any longer.
Marketing, however, is where we’ve really been duped. Contemporaneously with this dumbing down we’ve graciously been allowed by Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan (even Brooks Brothers for god’s sake) and all the rest into paying them to market their product lines for free by buying T-shirts with their names and/or logos featured prominently. This would be acceptable if my name were Tommy or Ralph, or the Golden Fleece was my personal crest, but whatever happened to the now-quaint idea of wearing labels on the inside of clothing? Enough about the history of the T-shirt. As the famous quote from the late Paul Harvey goes, “Now, the rest of the story”. Stay tuned.