T-shirt turns 100

The 100th anniversary of the T-shirt

September 21, 2013
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Cross country runner Taryn Gibson Sheehan's grandmother made this quilt from her T-shirts. Sheehan, originally from Canonsburg, is now a cross country coach at the University of Louisville.
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Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Kate Speer has held onto her 1997 Washington County Fair Cheerleading Competition T-shirt for 16 years. The shirt even remains spotless after all that time. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Tom Zeni has held tightly to the shirt he’s wearing in the photo for more than 20 years. He usually pulls the shirt out when he’s at the beach to protect him from the sun, but despite the mustard stain and wear, he still puts it on occasionally. Zeni also loves his Pirates and showcases one of his favorite Buccos T-shirts. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Paint and and a pile of silk screens sit waiting to be used during the screen-printing process at Dynamic Creations in Washington. T-shirts can become one of a kind with customization in designs and color. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Dynamic Creations owner Neil Cataldo finishes screen-printing T-shirts before placing them on a drying conveyor belt to be finished. Dynamic Creations specializes in creating customized T-shirts with embroidery and screen printing. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe/Observer-Reporter
Graphic designer Chris Thomas spreads paint over a shirt during the screen-pinting process at Dynamic Creations in Washington. It’s been 100 years since the T-shirt was invented, and although the structure is the same, people have found ways to customize and recreate the original. Order a Print

The humble, iconic T-shirt celebrates its 100th birthday this year.

So thank you, U.S. Navy.

According to online T-shirt design company CustomInk, the Navy introduced cotton T-shirts in 1913 for sailors to wear under their uniforms, launching one of the most popular wardrobe pieces in fashion history.

If not for the Navy’s decision, Tom Zeni of South Strabane Township probably would not own his 20-year-old XXL Ecko T-shirt (worn thin and complete with mustard and other condiment stains) that his wife, Jackie, permits him to wear on trips to Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, where they’re not likely to run into anyone they know.

Kate Speer of Canonsburg might not have her beloved 1997 Washington County Fair cheerleading competition tee.

How would we know to “Vote for Pedro?” Or that we‘re with Stupid?

CustomInk president Marc Katz said an online survey conducted by the company earlier this year as part of its T-shirt birthday celebration showed that 87 percent of Americans who wear T-shirts own at least one they can’t throw away for sentimental reasons.

Once they’ve made a personal connection with a shirt, it seems, people are reluctant to relinquish it.

“I think T-shirts are associated with memories, activities and people that are important to us,” said Diane Gibson of Dynamic Creations, a screen printing company in Washington. “People really identify with a moment or an event, and that makes the shirt significant. My husband still has cross country T-shirts from high school in a box that he won’t get rid of. It was such a big part of his life.”

So reluctant was Gibson’s daughter, Taryn Gibson Sheehan, now an assistant track and cross country coach at the University of Louisville, to throw away the cross country T-shirts she accumulated during an outstanding scholastic and collegiate career that her grandmother, Joan Gibson, turned them into a quilt.

The T-shirt has morphed into more than an item of clothing, said psychologist Holly Martin of Washington. It’s a form of personal expression. T-shirts let us express our viewpoints, our likes and dislikes. They reveal what teams we like, what products we buy and what activities we enjoy.

“A T-shirt is a statement about you,” said Martin. “It has less to do with the shirt we’re wearing and more to do with what the shirt represents.”

CustomInk provided a primer on the evolution of the T-shirt, including these highlights:

The first literary reference to a T-shirt was found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” published in 1920. That same year, the word “T-shirt” was added to the Meriam-Webster dictionary.

In 1932, students at the University of Southern California began to steal T-shirts, stenciled with “Property of USC” to discourage theft, from their own football team.

It was Marlon Brando and “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951 that turned the white T-shirt into a fashion phenomenon. Four years later, James Dean wore his own white tee in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

And New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey’s presidential campaign team printed Dew-it-with-Dewey T-shirts in 1948, ushering in an era of message-bearing tees.

“T-shirts are unlike any other item of clothing,” said Katz. “They have this incredible power to bring us together and tell our story. That’s why we cherish them and why they stand the test of time.”

That’s true of the Flying Monkey T-shirts that the Garet family, with the help of graphic designer friends, created for the Flying Monkey 5K Race in honor of Scott Garet, a Waynesburg University graduate, runner and math teacher who died in December 2011 at the age of 26 following a brief battle with lung cancer.

The logo, a yellow monkey wearing a red cape, is a combination of two of Garet’s favorite childhood stuffed animals – both monkeys.

“When we began talking about putting on a 5K race, we knew the shirt was a big deal and having a great logo was a big deal,” said Jonathan Garet, Scott’s brother. “When people saw the T-shirt and the monkey logo, they really, really liked it. We thought, ‘Wow, it really catches the eye. We nailed it.’”

Jonathan recalled the first time he saw someone wearing the Flying Monkey T-shirt after the inaugural race was held in 2012. He was at the Cameron Wellness Center and the importance of the shirt struck him.

“I thought it was pretty cool to see someone wearing it,” said Jonathan. “Mostly now when I see the shirts, I realize that we’re doing something for a greater cause. It represents the closeness of my family and how we’re trying to turn a negative into a positive for other people by trying to help find a cure for lung cancer. And maybe another family won’t have to face the reality that we deal with every day.”

Proof indeed that tees are much more than “just a lousy T-shirt.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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