In the course of less than one century the classic undershirt with short sleeves, also known as the t-shirt, became an outer garment, worn for every occasion, even under a suit. My dad went from never wearing a t-shirt, because he preferred sleeveless undershirts under his button down shirts in the winter, to frequently wearing t-shirts during the hot summers he spent in Santa Fe.
T-shirts now come in all colors and many display slogans or logos or some kind of image. How did this happen, I wonder? I remember an iconic photo of James Dean wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. Marlon Brando wore a white t-shirt in the 1951 movie A Streetcar Named Desire. It was the cowboy uniform and was adopted by poets and musicians in the Sixties. The t-shirt and jeans rose up together, from their beginning as work uniform. My grandpa disliked jeans. They reminded him of the workwear called Blaumann, literally blue man, which he wore in the factory where he worked as a machinist. I tried to tell him it was a similar color but a different fabric, to no avail.
My mom bought my first pair of jeans at a department store. I could immediately see that the fabric didn’t at all look like the denim that Levis jeans were made of. Levis were the gold standard among my friends. Mom didn’t understand what my problem was and so I had to wear the pants to school. The other students looked at me with pity, or so I thought.
You can’t wear a t-shirt to your grandfather’s birthday party, you can’t wear a t-shirt to the family dinner, you absolutely can’t wear a t-shirt to this funeral. Perhaps part of the allure of jeans and t-shirt was the fact that one had to fight to wear them in the first place. It’s funny now to think that just 50 years ago insisting on wearing a t-shirt and maybe even denim… and perhaps letting one’s hair grow down to the shoulders was such an act of rebellion.
I wonder whether it was in fact easier to have something so simple that could rile up parents and grandparents. Now one really has to think of something much more radical to achieve the kind of anger that would make a total stranger yell at me that I should be ashamed of myself and run, not walk, to a barber.