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America, identity politics and the power of the T-shirt

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Like so many icons of American culture, the T-shirt owes its ascendancy to the U.S. military. In what is widely considered the first printed T-shirt, an American Air Corps gunnery unit shirt made the cover of Life magazine in July 1942, complete with a wearer bearing a large weapon.

But the history of the T-shirt goes back even further in military lore, to earlier American military adventures. The original T-shirt wearers were members of the American Navy fighting in the Spanish American War at the end of the 19th century. The soldiers were issued T-shirts as part of their uniform, and they henceforth carried the mantle of the T-shirt as outerwear.

The T-shirt would become the go- to garment for blue-collar America. In time, it would then emerge as an icon in its own right, malleable to the whims of the Zeitgeist.

By the 1950s, T-shirt-cool had taken hold and spoke to the newly self-anointed American rebel spirit, with its whiff of anti-heroic martyrdom and the triumph of the underdog: Marlon Brando in his white T-shirt prowling the waterfront, James Dean's outsider-loner in denim and white cotton.

"The T-shirt has been used to convey both rebellion and conformity, depending upon the context and the type of messages," writes Diana Crane in her book, Fashion and Its Social Agenda: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing.

America gave the world the T-shirt, and the world, in turn, gave Americans cheap Chinese T-shirts of the "big box" variety. Crane notes that Americans purchase about a billion T-shirts every year.

"Technical developments in the 1950s and 1960s, such as plastic inks, plastic transfers and spray paint, led to the use of colored designs and increased the possibilities of the T-shirt as a means of communication," writes Crane.

Nothing says conformity like the social phenomenon of the big-box uniculture wardrobe, recognizable as a regional fashion trend where everyone wears the same T-shirt and khaki-shorts combo to the beach.

While itchy and ill-fitting, these shirts offered ersatz individuality in the guise of innocuous or goofy declarations, or, more to the point, with pictures of a large and intimidating pickup truck with messages about God, Guns and Freedom.

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But wherever we buy them and for whatever reason we wear them, we all love our T-shirts and we all have that one we've kept forever. We go on vacation, we buy the shirt. There's a family reunion, and we're making shirts to commemorate it. "I was there: McCarthy Family Picnic, 1995."

We wear some T-shirts until they're practically falling apart; others occupy nostalgia space in our bureaus until such time as a garage sale is declared or a rag is needed to wash the car.

We may outgrow the T-shirt, but not the message. Or we may outgrow the message and sell the shirt on E-bay for $60 to some crazed Uriah Heep fan in Antwerp.

T-shirts are basically an easy and generally cheap way to self-identify. But our era does offer more than its share of the willfully offensive T-shirt—shock for shock's sake messaging under the mantle of "free expression" as the obtuse rationale du jour. Earnest expressions of self-identity and defiance—"I Had an Abortion"— have given way to the truly tasteless T's of our time.

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