Our family’s T-shirt habit probably started out the same as your family’s custom did. Grandma and grandpa went on a trip and brought home T-shirts with their destination’s name and an image printed on them for all the grandkids. It didn’t matter if they had gone across the world on an African safari or merely to a city in a bordering state. Getting that T-shirt from “someplace else” let the other kids know that you were someone special because you had either traveled to exotic places yourself or were related to people who did.
This habit-former also demonstrates why the simple T-shirt has a hold on us—95 percent of Americans wear them—in a way that no other article of clothing does. T-shirts are billboards. They are forms of personal expression. At a glance, they tell people where we’ve been, what we believe in, our political leanings, where we work or how our sense of humor operates.
This year, this ubiquitous piece of clothing celebrates its 100th anniversary. Let’s celebrate by pulling a few out of our closets, and see what stories they tell.
According to the Washington, D.C., T-shirt maker CustomInk, the U.S. Navy first introduced the country to T-shirts a hundred years ago. In its 1913 uniform regulations, the navy wrote that the “light undershirt shall be of the lightest-weight cotton consistent with durability … it shall have sleeves only long enough to cover the armpit.” By 1920, the first reference to the T-shirt appeared in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. In 1938, you could buy a T-shirt for 24 cents through the Sears catalog.
But it wasn’t until the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire that the T-shirt became a fashion phenomenon. The man who brought it fame was a very young Marlon Brando. Four years later, the T-shirt got another shot of cool when James Dean wore one under his red jacket in the film Rebel Without a Cause.
In honor of this anniversary, I went through my dresser drawers and closets to see how deeply I fall into that 95th percentile. Although I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly avid T-shirt wearer, I was surprised to find that even I had quite a few I never seemed to be able to part with. They were saved, I suppose, for what I think they say about me—or at least about the image I want to convey to the world. Here are some of them and what they revealed to me about myself:
• My “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History” T-shirt. This quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich makes me feel like James Dean in his undershirt; obviously I think I’m a rebel.
• There’s the T-shirt my future daughter-in-law gave me: “Be careful! Or you will end up in my novel.” It seems I haven’t given up my dreams of writing one.
• My Princeton University T-shirt. No, I never went to Princeton. But my son did. Just put this one in the proud mom category.
• A large variety of greyhound T-shirts. Over the years, I’ve rescued and lived with nine former racers. Apparently, I’m gaga over greyhounds, and I want the world to know it.
As great as T-shirts are at announcing who we are, I think they function at their best when used in the way that many of us got into the T-shirt habit in the first place: to tell others where we’ve traveled. In fact, a few decades ago, a T-shirt fashion trend was to not only advertise where you or someone you knew had vacationed but to take a jab at the honored status of the T-shirt as travel billboard. You might still have one of these kinds of T-shirts: “My [grand] parents went to [fill in the destination] and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” This humorous backlash could be found on T-shirts for nearly every spot in the universe. The joke wouldn’t have made sense, of course, without the T-shirt’s first being established as the de rigueur travel memento.
In fact, a travel T-shirt of sorts was ranked no. 1 by CustomInk as the most iconic all time. It reads “I ♥ New York.”
My own travel T-shirts include one from 1994, when the University of Wisconsin Badgers football team went to the Rose Bowl. At that time, the Badgers hadn’t played in the Rose Bowl for more than 30 years. There’s also my vintage NatHab T-shirt, the one with the seal logo.
A CBS This Morning story on the T-shirt’s 100th anniversary reported that 87 percent of people own at least one T-shirt that they refuse to trash because of a sentimental attachment. Mine would have to be one I bought for my son about 20 years ago, when he was almost 10 years old. We had gone on a family trip to the Grand Canyon. Pictured on the front of the shirt were skeletons of a coyote, a rabbit, a snake, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex in various poses, going about their daily lives on the desert floor. The printed type says, “Arizona … but it’s a dry heat.”
Do you still own a favorite T-shirt that you picked up while traveling? How long have you had it?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,