Thursday, March 31, 2011
Tee-Construction: A brief history of the T-shirt
It all started with sailors. A century before Calvin Klein, the idea that underwear was an essential part of one's wardrobe didn't exist. In 1880, one Dr. Gustav Jaeger convinced what must have been a rather fragrant nation that regularly washed underwear might be a good thing. Still, most late 19th century folks got by with the "Spiral Bustle", not much more than an extended shirt.
In 1901, P.H. Hanes Knitting Company (now just Hanes) introduced two-piece men's underwear for catalogue sale. But it was the Navy, 12 years later, that inadvertently accelerated the evolution of underwear by issuing a revolutionary new item to its sailors. Seeking to avoid sexually scandalous sights exposed by its V-necked uniforms the Navy issued a garment that featured short sleeves, a "crew" neckline (hence "crew neck") and a vaguely "T"-shaped silhouette (hence "T-shirt").
A few years later, the influx of sailors on leave during World War I brought about the truncating of the popular civilian "union suit" into a "singlet" or "jersey." The price: 24 cents. The trend soon spread, and by World War II 12 million men were wearing the Navy's newer, less expensive tee, which quickly became known as "skivvies."
The nation grew accustomed (and secretly thrilled) to newsreel images of wartime patriots barely dressed in, what writer Valerie Steele described as, the "most significant and pervasive example of underwear as outerwear. Not only [did] it flaunt rules about hidden clothing, but it also [violated] taboos ... against male sexual display." Even at this early point in its existence the T-shirt became an empty canvas upon which anyone might project his or her sexual fantasies. In the words of Guggenheim magazine's Deborah Drier, it allowed individuals to indulge in "showing gender" and the "erotic presentation of the self."
By war's end, the phenomenon of the T-shirt — the one garment capable of displaying class, sexual orientation, cultural affiliation and the advertising of same — was born. Though 180 million were sold in 1951, the T-shirt's meteoric ascendance can be traced to, like many things American, the movies.
The seminal T-shirt film is Elia late 19th A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Marlon Brando's brutish portrayal of the lovelorn Stanley Kowalski riveted a nation as Brando's buff pecs and abs were revealed in graphic relief by a thin, stretched tee. According to Drier, the overall image created "a sexualized brutality ... a dangerous ... incoherent sort of manhood."
Four years later, the tee sewed its rebellious rock 'n ' roll roots with James Dean as he mumbled his anti-authoritarian way through Rebel Without a Cause (1955). In the '60s, toasted tee-wearing hippies took on the Establishment in Easy Rider (1969), while the Sexual Revolution of the '70s was given form (and visibly erect nipples) via Jacqueline Bisset's wet tee in The Deep (1977).
Even the '80s received its own chintzy signifier with Don Johnson's designer-tee and Armani suit get-up in Miami Vice. Considering the techno-fetishistic and corporation-friendly nature of the '90s, it is apt that the most memorable recent tee-film is Mission: Impossible (1996), with an androgynously pretty, synthetic-tee-clad Tom Cruise hanging from a wire in order to do some serious downloading.
However prescient Hollywood might have been regarding the tee, the advertising world took a while to notice the shirt's human billboard potential. Ever the innovator, the military caught on first. As if jar-head haircuts weren't humiliating enough, the armed services began stenciling rank and company on T-shirts. About the same time, Ivy League schools clarified the student body pecking order by way of the imprimatur of school fraternities on tees. The first corporate-advertising tee didn't appear until the '60s, when Budweiser featured a can of Bud on the company's T-shirts. Since then, however, advertisers have grown more savvy in terms of their demographics — especially the captive market of college students.
One example of how brazen companies have become with their T-shirt promotions can be seen at Northwestern University. Recent Northwestern grad Maura Johnston notes, "They'd give you free stuff, and the free stuff of choice was a T-shirt [with credit card logo]. Brilliant marketing! If there's one thing people in college hate to do, it's laundry. You give students T-shirts and they become a billboard for whatever product is being sold."
The on-campus tee, corporate or not, continues to define class and cultural orientation. "Phish shirts and frats are synonymous," says Johnston. "Then there's people who want to show they're 'ironic' by wearing Miss Piggy or some other childhood icon."
Today, rock T-shirt sales are an over $500 million business. Whether you're a stoner wearing the new Spiritualized tee, or a self-anointed outcast draped in the latest Marilyn Manson misery-wear, the tee continues to be the transmitter of instant cultural/psychological affiliation. The T-shirt is ubiquitous — from corporate sports gatherings to seedy leather bars to the runways of high-fashion, the tee continues to spell it all out. With the advent of inexpensive printers and appropriate software, the T-shirt has become an even more egalitarian mode of expression. And since anything can be printed on a T-shirt by most anyone, it hasn't lost its ability to shock. Or at least annoy.