The T-shirt statement, from James Dean to Bart Simpson

July 29, 1992|By Jane Turnis | Jane Turnis,Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph

Rebel James Dean didn't have a cause, but he did have a fashion statement.

Wearing a plain white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he brought the undergarment out in the open in 1955 and created an image that captivated teen-agers.

Since then, Americans have dyed, painted, silk-screened, embroidered and ripped T-shirts. We parade our politics, amuse, promote products and musicians, show where we've been, and even sleep in them.

The T-shirt as we know it today was born by accident.

In 1960, Rick Ralston, a skinny California kid just out of high school, decided to spray-paint designs on beach towels and sell them. He practiced by painting a monster on a T-shirt; his business plan and American fashion changed forever when a tourist bought the shirt off his back.

Mr. Ralston and a friend went to work painting monsters, surfers and hot rods on T-shirts that tourists bought from a local sporting goods store. They charged $2.85 apiece.

A few years later, Mr. Ralston opened the first store devoted solely to selling T-shirts and sweat shirts, and he switched to silk-screening.

Today, there are an estimated 20,000 silkscreeners in the United States, and T-shirts have become a multimillion dollar industry.

T-shirts have become signs of the times. You can tell a lot about America by looking at our T-shirts through the years. Even the most fleetingfads, from cartoon characters to "Saturday Night Live" catch phrases, are documented.

T-shirt fans took expression into their own hands during the Vietnam War, when hippies painted on peace signs, and twisted, tied, and then dipped their shirts into dye.

Motorcycle and hot rod logos were emblazoned across the chests of late-1960s and early 1970s T-shirt wearers. Phrases such as "Keep on truckin'," marijuana symbols and bright paints that glowed under black lights became trademarks of the era.

Nothing epitomizes the "me generation" better than people wearing dot-pattern pictures of themselves on their T-shirts in the 1980s.

On "Miami Vice," Don Johnson made plain, brightly colored T-shirts worn under light linen jackets appropriate nightclub wear for men.

T-shirt designers mocked Nancy Reagan's anti-drug messages with "Just Say Moe" shirts. featuring that famous Stooge, and "This is your brain. This is your brain in Santa Fe" (or Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, etc.)

In 1990 school officials cringed when Matt Groening's badly behaving "Simpsons" characters marched into grade schools on T-shirts, and life started imitating Bart.

Today, environmental messages, hologram-like images, American Indians and botanical prints are hot.

These slices of culture on cotton have become as common as Levi's and sneakers, and as American as apple pie. Most are no longer a sign of rebellion, as when James Dean wore them over his lanky frame.

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