One style fits all: Dressing's a breeze with T's

September 30, 1993|By Diane Lewis | Diane Lewis,Knight Ridder News Service

WICHITA, KAN — WICHITA, Kan. -- Wanna make a statement, fashion or otherwise? It's easy. Put on a T-shirt.

Only a couple generations ago, cotton T-shirts were mere underwear. Today, they're the consummate fashion accessory. Plain, white T-shirts are even being worn with men's and women's suits in some trendy locales.

A T-shirt, said Jimmy Newcomer of the Fashion Institute of Technology, can have snob appeal. A T with Giorgio Armani's "AX" says "It may be only a T-shirt, but I'm wearing an Armani."

Others are drawn from the summer movie genre. Still others show support for a favorite sports team.

We wear T-shirts, said Mr. Newcomer, because they're easy to care for, comfortable and cheap. He teaches sportswear and current trends.

As he sees it, we're into the uniform mode, greatly influenced by the unisex Gap stores. The uniform: denim shirt, khakis or jeans, and a T-shirt.

Sometimes the T-shirt is white, but more often, it's printed or decorated. In a survey by Hanes, a major player in the T-shirt market, three out of four respondents said they wear printed T-shirts every day, while shopping, after work and while exercising.

No one is able to pinpoint exactly when the T with a message advertising or otherwise became de rigueur. Mr. Newcomer said it seemed to emerge in the 1970s along with protests by students, women and anti-war activists.

"That's when kids broke down the masculine/feminine lines in dress," he said. Wearing T-shirts was a protest against the establishment, he said. It became a way to identify with the underdogs -- laborers, farmers, miners -- who had always worn T-shirts as outerwear.

At the Best of Times gift shop in Wichita, owner Nancy Robinson fondly recalls Tammy Faye Bakker and the summer of 1987. While the Bakkers' PTL Ministry was crumbling, the shop sold "a couple gross" of a shirt with the face of a smeary-faced caricature and the legend, "I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall."

Not all T-shirts are so in-your-face. Ms. Robinson said her most popular shirt for men the past year has been fueled by the popular TV show "Home Improvement." It pictures tools and the message, "I live for hardware."

Printed T's are increasingly popular as birthday gifts, Ms. Robinson said. They're inexpensive (less than $20), easy to wrap (just put them in a sack), and they work for men or women.

Popular icons for T-shirts, she said, are tornadoes, sunflowers, cats, "Far Side" cartoons, M. C. Escher designs and the "purple" shirt, inspired by a Jenny Joseph poem on becoming an eccentric old woman.

For years, Ms. Robinson said, her most popular shirt played off the Wizard of Oz theme. It said: "Dear Auntie Em, Hate you. Hate Kansas. Taking the dog. Dorothy."

People also like to wear shirts that recall places they've been like Pebble Beach, or San Francisco or a Hard Rock Cafe.

T-shirts are definitely here to stay, Mr. Newcomer predicts. In the United States alone, more than 1 billion shirts were sold in 1990. Within the past year, 67 percent of all Americans had purchased a printed T, according to Hanes. The average number of printed T's acquired was 5.4, a whopping third of them as gifts.

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