Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - August 23, 2013


I've been seeing quite a few purple T-shirts with PowerCat logos around Manhattan recently. Kansas State University is gearing up to start a new year, and students and staff alike have been wearing them to show their pride for the Wildcats.

Even our German "kids" Nadja and Tim, who have been with us a few weeks this summer, have been wearing the K-State T-shirts I bought for them. They boast that K-State pulled off a trifecta last year by winning conference titles in football, men's basketball and baseball. Tim has become a huge U.S. football fan, and the Wildcats and the Green Bay Packers are among his favorite teams. He has Ts to show his support for both.

This started me thinking about a "Kansas City Star" article I read about the100th anniversary of the T-shirt.

According to the July 20 piece, the U.S. Navy began issuing crewneck T-shirts in 1913 to wear under uniforms. Before that, sailors had to wear itchy wool. The reporter conceded that the shirt was probably older than that because European sailors were already wearing the lighter cotton underwear. But he said he'd "stick to the nice round number" of a century of wear because it's "close enough for government work."

T-shirts remained a piece of male underwear until the '30s when hard times meant skimping on clothing budgets and many men were doing hot manual work. The necessities of that decade blended into those of the war years and men on duty in warm climates frequently wore as little as they could. This was also the time when the term "T-shirt" first appeared, stemming from its shape.

By the '50s, T-shirts had become outerwear for boys in some school sports and by male Hollywood stars in movies when the goal was to present a blue-collar man as being sexy. Slowly, it became accepted wear, primarily for boys and young men.

But it was the '60s that ushered in the T-shirt revolution. Since Ts were relatively inexpensive, people could use them as a means to express their individuality. A white T-shirt could be colored at home with inexpensive dyes. Press-on letters became available and suddenly, personal messages or simple homemade team uniforms became a possibility.

Looking in my own dresser, I found a 40-year-old T-shirt from when I was a junior in college. It's light blue with "Farl Glor" in navy blue press-on letters on the front and "13" on the back to represent my Sept. 13 birthday. "Farl" came about when roommate Deb and I were in the same art appreciation class and had seen our fill of famous European sculptures and paintings. We had been writing notes in the margins of each others' notebooks (no texting back then) when one of us wrote, "You fart!" But the "t" wasn't crossed and the word "Farl" was born. It became our code word for those in our inner circle of "farldom." Before long, we and several of our friends had a shirt with "Farl" followed by our name on the front and our respective birth date on the back. Deb even carried the T-shirt idea forward when I was pregnant with our oldest daughter. Mariya got her very own "Farl Baby" T-shirt to match mine.

Homemade customization gave way to those that were commercially screen printed - an inexpensive way to take a plain shirt and change it into one proclaiming a company message, a school affiliation, or any other association.

When I asked what her favorite T-shirt was, daughter-in-law Lacey sent an immediate response via text:

"Giiiirl!! Don't get me started on my favorite tshirt! It's a beautiful, forever kind of love for that gray cotton tshirt with my old school Willie. [the K-State logo prior to the Powercat.] So soft!!! It has probably shrunk a little (a lot) due to several washes, but it seems to get softer and more wonderful each time. Tshirt soulmate that my kids and grandkids will probably enjoy. Fits perfect every time and goes with everything. I wear it when I am sick, or not sick. It's amazing."

I looked at the few other T-shirts I've saved over the years.

I have a yellow one with a monkey hanging from the word "Ecuador" from my Peace Corps days in that South American country. Another has "Born Wild" with an eagle and Harley Davidson logo from when brother-in-law Dave was a Harley dealer in Wichita, Kan. It makes me smile because "wild" was never an adjective people would use to describe me.

The KC Star reporter said 95 percent of Americans wear T-shirts and we love them for many reasons: they remind us of some experience or place we've traveled every time we put them on; they're usually fairly inexpensive; and they are customizable.

Husband Art has generally not been one to wear T-shirts in public. He'll occasionally wear one in the winter as a nightshirt or when he is working on something where his clothing might be damaged. Our girls gave him one many years ago with "Mr. Fix-It" printed across the back. It accurately described one of the traits I love best about him - his ability to repair almost anything we give him. He wore it until it was threadbare.

But an exception occurred in 1981 during his university professor days. While in charge of the electronics area, it became known among the faculty that an offer at about Art's pay level had been made to a fellow with no experience and lesser credentials. Art's friend Bill had a T-shirt made and gave it to him as a gag gift. Art surprised everyone by wearing it to class. Emblazoned across the front were the words, "My boss pays me weakly."

Left: Part of the group of "Farls" from my college days. Friend Deb is second from the left and I am at the far right; right: Mariya and I hold a quilt made by Deb from Mariya's childhood T-shirts. The quilt was made for her high school graduation.

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