Culture the Symbolic Expression of t Shirts

T-Shirts originated as items of underwear and have become the canvasses that populate a world of moving, talking and interacting symbolic expressions of any idea that humans can have. Even more, any individual can either use their computers and printers, or relatively inexpensive hand painting and dyeing processes to apply an infinite number of value laden, normative, commercial and personal expressions to every t-shirt that they can get their hands on.

T-Shirts express ideas that individuals want the larger world to know about. Their clubs, professions, social causes, schools, branches of the military, communities, events and even sports teams become items of interest, conversation starters and ways to publicize.  T-shirts can contain artistic impressions and expressions of a realistic or abstract nature. T-shirts can contain personal expressions, jokes and commentary.

The t-shirt, itself is a symbolic expression that can speak volumes about an individual. The GI issue t-shirts that are part of the military uniform have changed little in style, but have been a part of a century of widely varied experiences and memories.

“Wife beater” t-shirts are wildly popular for men, women and even infants. They are a useful and comfortable style statement as well as a reminder of the type of shirt that was worn in the “Godfather” film by an abusive husband; and in the “Alien” series and a host of copycat films to show the gritty heroism of women in combat clothing.

The all American idea of  the post adolescent “born to be wild”, the rebel without the cause, and of the average working stiff, male and female, adult and child is represented by the t-shirt. The t-shirt is a universal expression of comfortable, work ready, sleep ready, and sturdy but cheap clothing that supports a “regular” lifestyle.

Tye-dyed t-shirts were the fundamental symbolic representation of social change during the “Hippie” era, and are still institutionalized as one of the most popular forms of artistic and social expression ever known. Elaborate artwork that is printed, silk screened or manually painted onto t-shirts is also an institution where otherwise unrecognized artists and hobbyists can achieve maximum exposure through a relatively inexpensive process.

Political statements and positions of great complexity can be on t-shirts. A single word, phrase, or even symbol can speak volumes to each individual who reads the symbols and slogans and interprets them through their own emotional and political filters. As a result, there is an entire set of social activities, rules and consequences to wearing certain t-shirts to certain events or at certain times.

In some cases, the law, dress codes, or specific rules regulate the wearing of t-shirts, just as offensive spoken language or improper dress is dealt with.

In other cases, mild to severe social disapproval or rejection will result if a certain symbolic message t-shirt is not worn in specific situations. The team shirt, with its logo, the staff shirt that is worn at festivals and certain venues, law enforcement and public official shirts, and other message and information laden shirts are essential for identifying specific individuals and their roles at events and in society.

An extensive t-shirt collection depicts our travels, much like the old luggage stickers used to do. T-shirts tell which concerts, fairs, festivals, special accesses and recognitions and other events that we have participated in.

High quality t-shirts, such as silk t’s, simple shirts that are embellished with expensive decoration,  or shirts made by designers in exotic colors make them more acceptable in situations that require higher style or the display of wealth.

In summary, t-shirts, once an item of underwear, have evolved into symbolic expression in themselves and as mechanisms to create interactive human billboards. The t-shirt is a universally comfortable and cheap item of fundamental clothing, or is a designer’s statement of wealth and good taste.

The t-shirt is here to stay as a way to say a lot of things to a lot of people in a lot of places.