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Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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Published: Wednesday, 7/30/2008

T-shirts: garments that say it all

When we think of the history of T-shirts, we could say they are an example of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

The original T-shirt was an undershirt, primarily worn by men.

Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia, says, "A T-shirt is a shirt, usually buttonless, collarless, and pocketless, with a round neck and short sleeves, that is pulled on over the head and covers most of a person's torso. The sleeves of the T-shirt extend at least slightly over the shoulder but not completely over the elbow. A shirt that is either longer or shorter than this ceases to be a T-shirt."

That description needs updating. T-shirts have a prominent place in today's wardrobes as souvenirs, advertisments, even expressions of opinion. The first presidential T-shirt promotion was in 1948 for Thomas Dewey, and it said "Do it For Dewey." Four years later it was "I Like Ike" shirts.

Last week when the mosquitoes were thicker than road dust and even a rain bonnet worn backwards wouldn't keep the starving pests off my face, I decided to straighten the T-shirt drawers. More T-shirts than I will need in this lifetime or the next were sorted and organized into four piles: the keepers, the souvenir and gift shirts, the maybe keepers, and the absolute-do-not-put-back-in-the-drawer discards.

I should get rid of the souvenir shirt from Alaska because its heavy, hot fabric, but it's so timely I can't. Mosquitoes are fluttering around the words "Bite Me." How well I remember the welts on arms and legs on that trip. That's the way with souvenir T-shirts. They are memories we hate to get rid of. Giving a T-shirt to someone who has never been to the place we visited may not be a good idea. Why would anyone who hasn't been there care about a black shirt with Macho Picchu in gold lettering on it? But to me it is a reminder of my favorite journey. And so piles No.1 and 2 got higher and higher. Gift shirts that say a lot include a pink one, "Somebody in Aiken, S.C., Loves Me," and an original Tony Packo shirt that I cherish.

Consider the tops that sparkle with rhinestones, the patriotic Fourth of July flag and fireworks designs, the joyful Christmas logos, party shirts with photos of the honored engaged couple, grandmother shirts with all the kids' pictures, and family reunion shirts that are prevalent in summer.

Today's choices let us flaunt our favorite brands, be it for tomato soup or an automobile. At the same time, the shirts are an ideal way for companies to advertise products. The wide range of choices eases gift selection. If a person has a cat, a cat shirt is a given. If she is a chocoholic, chose a shirt that reads CHOCOLATE in large letters across the front. I love mine.

The lettering and art that run the gamut in imagination, in praise, and even insult are a far cry from the plain shirts in World War 1. It is believed that a similar style was worn in ancient Egypt, but the most accurate account dates to the late 1800s in England, when under vests were worn. The popularity, as we know it now, began with the military. During World War I American soldiers, sweating in wool uniforms, were attracted to lightweight cotton shirts worn by European soldiers. The term crew neck is attributed to the U.S. Navy's undershirt neckline style introduced in 1913.

And how did I do with my T-shirt sorting? To tell you the truth, I got so involved reading about them, I just closed the drawers for another day.



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