I am going to tell you exactly how old I am: old enough to remember when T-shirts were white. I remember when they were essentially undergarments, worn with other shirts, although men had begun to wear them solo.
Yes, all T-shirts were white. They did not come in every color of the rainbow, or tie-dyed, nor did they feature logos, art, or writing. Just plain white shirts. They were not what they were to become: signboards of the soul, platforms for political manifestos, proclamations of political or sexual identity, advertisements for businesses, or just plain silliness.
Historians believe T-shirts evolved from the lowly tunic. Their modern iteration began when the Navy issued them during World War I. T-shirts, like the crew cuts of the 1950s, have a military origin. They had something of a blue-collar aspect to them (although collarless) — picture Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. But they were still white.
Just when the transformation of this humble garment took place I cannot say, although it must have been going on subtly and incrementally during the 1960s while I was wearing it. A larger question is why this transformation took place. Was it advancements in technology, or did people suddenly have a greater need to express themselves in clothing? I suspect it was the former, because the more I read of history the more I see that people have always been as complicated as we are today. There has always been the impulse to make a statement. What easier way to do it than by donning a T-shirt?
Now, when you go out on the street, you can immediately let people know that you voted for Bernie, idolize Che Guevera, identify as a lesbian, follow the Grateful Dead, went to UMass, support the right to bear arms, or any other self-proclaiming message. Before the advent of screen-printing technology, people had to guess who you were, what you stood for, what you liked, and what you abhorred.
I remember my first day in Coast Guard boot camp when I and my fellow enlistees had the same shaved heads and faces and the same denim outfits. Looking around, it was impossible to determine whether I would be dealing with a liberal or a conservative, a racist or a visionary, a nice guy or a jerk. It took a short conversation to acquire these facts. It was, in a way, liberating to live in this state of semi-anonymity, but over time each of us found small ways to differentiate ourselves. This need is characteristic only of our human tribe, as far as I can tell.
One of my own favorite T-shirts was the Strike Harvard model emblazoned with a stark clenched fist. I didn’t go to Harvard (my wife did), but I hung around there and identified with whatever it was we were protesting (the Vietnam War, of course, but so much more). I was proud to be identified with that movement, though I contributed little to it. I wore that shirt until it fell off my body in shreds.
Then there are all my whale T-shirts, some very artfully rendered, from 26 years on the Dolphin Fleet. I am proud to be associated with that enterprise and often wear those shirts. (Years ago, in Philadelphia we were going to a party and I asked my grown daughter if it was a dressy occasion. Her response: “Just don’t wear anything with a whale on it.”)
My new favorite is a yellow shirt with Zelenskyy in blue letters, designed by Bert Yarborough and Vicky Tomayko.
And, oh, the many wonderful T-shirts I have seen on the streets of Provincetown! So many of the logos I cannot print here, but you have seen them. My favorite last year was on a guy walking in front of town hall: it read “Available for Curb-side Pickup.” Years ago, I saw one that read “Photoshop: Helping the Ugly Since 1990.”
The whims of fashion are ever-changing, but the need for people to express themselves is a constant. And, absent a few offensive messages, it is a very good thing.