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Fashion fans rejoice as the humble T-shirt turns 100

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As a renowned fashion maven, I could not be more excited.

I am feeling giddy in a fashionable manner because -- as most of you who wear clothing are already aware -- this year we are celebrating the 100th birthday of a major fashion icon: the T-shirt.

As far as anyone knows -- and no one seems to know with absolute certainty -- the modern white T-shirt was born in 1913 when the U.S. Navy ordered a "light undershirt" for sailors to wear under their uniforms.

So, yes, that T-shirt in your underwear drawer has just turned 100. What does that mean? Well, for the standard person of my sex, it means their faded classic rock T-shirts are now as old and tattered as their lucky underpants -- the ones that basically consist of a few shards of grey material held together by an elastic waistband.

What with being a fashionista, I can state with absolute certainty guys cling to their favorite T-shirts with a passion bordering on obsession, much the way women are driven into states of sheer ecstasy by IKEA furniture, although T-shirts are a lot easier to put together.

Most guys I know consider themselves to be at the very pinnacle of fashion when they are spotted in public wearing a T-shirt with few ketchup and mustard stains.

In the 100 years since the U.S. Navy dragged this humble item of apparel into public consciousness, the T-shirt has become much more than a plain piece of clothing. It has become a cultural icon, a cheesy, wash-and-wear statement of who we are and what we believe in, a sort of sweat-stained personal ad.

The point I am trying to make is, as a fashion leader, I personally have not been this excited since the summer of 2010 when the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of the invention of the brassiere, an undergarment without which Olympic figure skating would not be the dominant sport it is today.

Don't get me wrong. I am a huge supporter of the bra, but I think it pales in comparison to the cultural significance of the humble T-shirt, and only partly because guys understand how to put on and take off a T-shirt, whereas, since the dawn of time, we have been totally mystified by the locking mechanism found on the standard brassiere.

Let's take a moment here and try to imagine a world without T-shirts. Kind of makes you shudder, doesn't it? I mean, where would politics and democracy be today if freethinking citizens did not have the right to wear message T-shirts festooned with inane political statements that make no sense whatsoever?

And what about rock 'n' roll? It is highly unlikely modern rock musicians would be able to support themselves or their groupies without the cash infusion generated by grotesquely overpriced souvenir T-shirts on which are printed the dates and cities of every concert stop on their absolutely final retirement tours.

From a historical perspective, would the 1960s -- an era of peace, love and understanding -- have even been possible were it not for those incandescent tie-dyed T-shirts you found lurking at the back of your parents' closet? We think not.

Also, the popular saying "Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt" would probably not resonate in our consciousness were it not for the birth of this 100-year-old wardrobe staple.

According to a survey conducted for online U.S. T-shirt giant CustomInk, 87 per cent of Americans admit they have at least one T-shirt they refuse to throw away for sentimental reasons.

This makes perfect sense to me. As I type these words, I am wearing my "Property of the B.C. Lions Football Club" T-shirt I bought in the Vancouver airport years ago. It embarrasses my family whenever I put it on, but it speaks to me. It says: "Doug, you are cheering for the wrong team, because you have lived in Winnipeg for almost 40 (bad word) years!"

On occasion, my wife, She Who Must Not Be Named, will wear her favorite T-shirt, which states "I'm With Stupid" and has an arrow pointing off to one side. This shirt confuses me, because, even when I'm standing right beside my wife, I am unable to see "stupid."

That said, here we are, a century later, and the time has come to give the T-shirt its due.

Brassieres aside, this is one item of reasonably priced clothing that has definitely earned its place in history.

What I would suggest, by way of paying tribute, is you slip into your favorite T-shirt right now, then stand up and reverently place one hand over your heart.

That should almost cover up the ketchup stain.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2013 A2

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