The World’s Fixation with T-shirts

The New York Times recently ran an article in the “Here to Help” section on bike shorts.  A teenager asked Vanessa Friedman, the NYT’s fashion critic, if they were acceptable as normal clothing (i.e.: when you are not on a bike!).  Friedman bemoaned the current style which she attributes to Kim Kardashian West and the designers Channel and Fendi, who used bike shorts on their runway this season.  Friedman predicted the fad would not last. 

T-shirts, another piece of casual clothing, on the other hand, show no signs of losing their popularity. They are ubiquitous. They are worn by young and old alike. Almost every culture wears them today. Why? Because they are simple, multi-functional and affordable.  They also offer a blank canvass for making a personal statement about what you like—or dislike—as well as what you’ve accomplished. 


While we may think the t-shirt has always been around as an apparel staple its origin is not that old. But where did t-shirts come from? The Romans certainly weren’t wearing them nor was Louis XIV parading around in them in Versailles.   

T-shirts date from the late 19th century when laborers would cut their jumpsuits in half to keep cool in warmer months. As a manufactured piece of clothing, it made its first appearance between the Mexican American War in 1898. Later around 1913 the U.S. Navy began issuing them to sailors to wear under their uniform as what we now call “undershirts.” The actual term “t-shirt”, however, wasn’t added to the English dictionary until 1920.  Some people claim the name was derived from the garment’s T-shape. 

It took decades before the underneath garment made its outward appearance to ultimately become the dominate style in casual wear that it is today. Now, it is universally accepted by both men and women as a piece of clothing as common as shoes and socks.   


While most of us associate Tees with fancy graphics and slogans, they can also be of just one color with no design. In fact, Codie, a New York City garden designer, only wears unadorned t-shirts.  She prefers to follow the Bottega Veneto saying: “When your own initials are enough.”  Several of my male friends also wear mono-colored, black t-shirts under their stylish suit jackets, a manly fashion trend started several years ago by Italian designers.   

Whenever I travel, summer or winter, I always pack a white and a black t-shirt. The only difference is whether I choose a short sleeve or long sleeve version depending on the season.  It is by far the most useful piece of my travel wardrobe as it can be dressed up or down. 


From the original plain version, designers and sports companies began adding their company logos.  By doing so, they essentially turned their clients into billboards for their brands.  Then, others caught on to the marketing potential of this piece of clothing. Universities, major corporations, and institutions of all types recognized that putting a clean logo design on a t-shirt was an effective and affordable way to build awareness of their product. 

You might ask yourself why people pay to promote a someone else’s brand and not the other way around.  It’s because people inherently like being part of a community, whatever it is. For example, people wear t-shirts to show off their alma mater. Sometimes the message is a simple graphic with the name of the school.  Shirts from Ivy League universities carry the most prestige but at the same time, stir the most envy.


Sometimes, there’s a message within a message on university branded Tees.  Joan Brower, my friend from Les Dames d’Escoffier, told me she bought her son a t-shirt when he graduated from Tuft’s Veterinary School.  It read: “Real doctors treat more than one species.”

Other times, the message is so subtle (and/or elitist) than only someone from that institution of higher education knows what it means. My running pal George told me a story of recently encountering a young Chinese man walking toward him on the sidewalk in Lower Manhattan.  On his chest was this series of formulae:

F     E    PV

A     R    NR

 As the man came closer, George squinted, pointed his finger at each one of the equations and slowly spelled out, “M-I-T.”  The man was summarily surprised as he didn’t realize that George had attended MIT years earlier.  Explaining to several of us, who had never taken physics, that the letters referred to the relationship between force, electricity and laws of gas, gave George bragging rights. George, a PhD, sometimes likes to subtly remind us how smart he is by wearing a t-shirt covered with the Periodic Table of Elements. 


While I have nothing like that to demonstrate my intellectual prowess, I do possess a drawer full of sporting t-shirts to attest to my physical strength and determination. Years ago, I started running marathons.  I kept all the t-shirts for years to remind myself of having completed seven time the 26.2 miles distance “in a vertical position,” as I liked to joke.  Eventually they wore out and were replaced with shirts from various cycling vacations around the world.

My favorite was Vermont Biking Tour’s t-shirt from Tuscany.  In my mind, that shirt gave witness to the fact that I had conquered the region’s many steep hills. That pride lasted until someone would go by wearing an Iron-Man shirt.  Then, it would be my turn to be impressed.  

Many people wear t-shirts to indicate where they’ve spent their holidays.  Joan describes them as being like “passport stamps showing countries you’ve visited.  It’s nice to put them on and remember the experiences you’ve had and the people you’ve met during your travels.” 


Sometime branded t-shirts possess status power. For example, if you’re a French teenager, Abercrombie and Fitch as well as Hollister tees (and sweatshirts, too) are de rigueur.  Have you ever seen the lines outside their two stores on Fifth Avenue in the summertime?  French tourists will wait for hours just to purchase a t-shirt to take home.  Being perceived as a cool American kid is something many foreign teenagers crave.  A $28-dollar t-shirt is a small price to pay to gain admiration from your peers or to flaunt that someone in your family vacationed in the U.S. 

If you’re a sports addict, you’ll support your favorite team by wearing its logoed T-shirt.  The hope is usually that you’ll encounter another fan so that you can high five each other. Loyalty among like-minded sports enthusiasts is a powerful connector among people around the world.     


Nine out of ten Americans wear some form of t-shirt, or so it seems on warm, summer days.  However, this form of casual attire is not for everyone. Joan, my friend from Italian class, refuses to wear them because she feels their neckline is uncomfortably restrictive.  While she couldn’t answer any of my “where, when and how” questions on the topic of our t-shirt fixation, she did offer a funny story about a “Jay Leno’s Show” skit she had seen years ago on television. 

“Jay Leno used to do these ‘Man-on-the-street’ segments to illustrate how dumb and/or unaware people can be.  This time he selected people wearing t-shirts with bold slogans or images” Joan continued. “Then, Jay would ask a question the answer to which was on the person’s shirt.  The interviewee would pause, look quizzical for a moment, then answer with something absurdly wrong as the cameraman zoomed in on their chest with the right answer. For example, ‘Where is Detroit located?’ and the person would answer, ‘Ohio’ as a big Michigan logo plastered on their t-shirt filled the screen.” 


Frequently, people wear t-shirts with slogans to make a personal statement. I asked wine guru, Tony Di Dio, why he thought that was.  “The statement they make is ‘I believe in it! I’m proud of whatever is written on my shirt,’ such as the name of a rock band, favorite sports team, etc.”  Sometimes the message has a partisan purpose to promote a cause or support an individual such as a political candidate or even a Supreme Court judge. 

My favorite political t-shirt subject is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  As a feminist, I find her sayings empowering.  The Notorious RBG t-shirt slogan I like best is “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Just yesterday I saw a ten-year-old girl wearing one which said, “Smart girls rule the world.”  I bet it won’t be long before that little girl is sporting a RBG Tee. 

Sometimes t-shirt sayings are just for fun or to encourage laughter.  Recently a three-year-old, bruiser of a boy walked past me wearing a dark green t-shirt with gold lightning bolts.  The message on his little chest read: “The most reliable source of natural gas.”  

Other times, people wear t-shirt slogans to provoke an action or perhaps, rather a reaction.  Last week, for example, I saw a regretfully unattractive, overweight, balding gentleman wearing “Free sex” on this t-shirt. “Sorry dude.” I thought to myself. “Not a chance even if you paid me.”  


Some people make a highly successful living out of designing t-shirts. Such is the case of my friend Roger Chen, a talented designer who was born and raised in Shanghai but now lives in Brooklyn. On a business trip back to China several years ago, Roger went shopping for gifts to bring back to his American friends. “All I could find were Chinatown-ish” silk scarves, fans, and chopsticks, nothing that represented a fast evolving and modernizing China.”  So, in 2008 Roger created a line of t-shirts called Produc-T. He also opened a shop to sell them in a residential-turned-artsy neighborhood called Tianzifang, Shanghai’s answer to Williamsburg. 

Many of his designs included poignant political sayings in Chinese with a touch of humor. “Instead of typical, touristy tees covered in panda bears or dragon motifs, I wanted to take a little risk and see what I could get away with,” Roger explained.” Plus, I wanted to show that the Chinese have a sense of humor.” The locals immediately understood the messaging and wondered what made him so brave. As you might imagine, Roger’s line of t-shirts was an instant hit.   


Roger’s bestselling design was “How to eat soup dumplings like a pro.” He elaborated, “To a foreign tourist, the design is not only synonymous with Shanghai—where the dish originated—but also very useful. To the local youth, it was a chance to derive a sense of pride out of something that is part of their own culture. For years, it was the westerners who taught us how to properly use forks and knives. Now it’s our turn to teach them a thing or two about our own culinary tradition.”

As it turns out, the idea for the t-shirt design came to Roger when he saw how his then boyfriend and now husband, Tony de Dio, ate his first Shanghai soup dumpling.  “He made a complete mess by biting and successfully squirting the hot broth inside the dumpling all over himself.” 

I asked Tony if he thought the popularity of t-shirts would ever fade. “As long as there are causes, sports teams, and universities to promote, they’ll be around,” he predicted with complete conviction. Then I adjoined, If Shanghai soup dumplings remain popular, there will always be a demand for Roger’s t-shirt too.” 

Check out Rogers instructions in the Appetizer section of this week’s post. Then, look for my much simplified (and totally un-authentic) version of how to make soup dumplings in the Dessert (recipe) section.