Lois Emenhiser isn’t quite as old as the T-shirt, but, at 82, she’s a lot closer than many of us.
And the New Haven woman says one of the favorite experiences in her life was donning a special T-shirt for the family party marking her 80th birthday, two years ago today.
At my age, the shirt read, I’ve seen it all, I’ve heard it all, I’ve done it all. I just don’t remember it all.
Given that Emenhiser is the mother of 11 living children, 41 grandchildren and 42 great-grandchildren, it’s not hard to see why her memories might get a little jiggly.
I walked in with something over it, and then flashed it during the party, she says. We had a lot of fun with it.
Yes, as the T-shirt marks its 100th birthday this year, there’s one – and usually about one dozen – for everybody, says Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist in the Washington, D.C., area, whose avocation is the psychological aspects of clothing.
It’s very much a basic in our wardrobes, she says of the ubiquitous tee. We all have it, whether we use it to work, or work out or pair it under a silk blazer.
Indeed, Baumgartner says, the tee is perhaps the most utilitarian of garments.
Anybody, be they male or female, an infant or a centenarian, can wear one. The shirts are typically inexpensive and readily available. They can be worn on a wide range of occasions, by someone of virtually any body type.
And with tweaking of necklines, hemlines, sleeves, designs, colors, and, lately, embellishments, tee styles seem virtually unlimited.
But the shirts also have the ability to make powerful connections to our emotions, Baumgartner says.
We use them to mark an occasion, an accomplishment. They speak to our viewpoints, our affiliations, our likes and our dislikes. It’s a way we can express our identity, whether it’s who we’re voting for, what team we like, what products we buy or what activity we enjoy.
In other words, a garment that began the road to popularization in 1913, when the U.S. Navy started issuing plain white tees as part of sailors’ uniforms, has morphed into a different sort of uniform – for a person’s chosen tribe.
And, once an emotional connection to a shirt is made, many people are loathe to relinquish it.
A lot of people have T-shirts that are ridiculously ratty, Baumgartner says. People hold onto T-shirts, and they’re stained and ripped and they have no wearing value at all, but they still keep them. They don’t want to let go of them. It’s not just a T-shirt. It’s a memory of a time or of who they were.
We asked some Fort Wayne area residents about their favorite T-shirts. Here’s some of what they told us.
Symbols of patriotism
Virginia Ginny Clark, 80, of Fort Wayne, says her favorite T-shirt is dark blue with an American flag emblazoned on the front.
I’ve been married for 61 years, and even back then, I was patriotic in my clothing, she says.
I wore a pill box hat in red, white and blue with a navy blue dress, navy shoes and white gloves (to my wedding). I love my country enough to display our colors any way I can, she said.
Clark, who also has a guest bath done in an Americana theme, says she and her husband Jim, 81, a Dana Corp. retiree, often wear matching flag tees she found on a sale rack to church services for patriotic holidays.
Every Memorial Day, every Fourth of July, every Labor Day is an opportunity to honor our country, she says.
A love of history
David Sowards, 49, of Fort Wayne has a different take on patriotism. His favorite T-shirt has depictions of many superimposed figures and events of American history.
It’s like a big drawing, kind of like a graphic novel, he says, adding that some of the shirt’s elements are a bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, likenesses of U.S. presidents, depictions of Revolutionary and Civil War battles and World War I and II airplanes.
He says he got the shirt during the Clinton administration when he spotted it in a thrift store and couldn’t walk away.
It was all the details, says Sowards, who is retired and enjoys learning about history.
A lot of people don’t realize we live in history and historical events, well, events that will become historical, are happening all the time. It’s cool to see them sort of all happening at once.
One day around 1970, Ben Steward of Fort Wayne was walking through a village on the Pacific island of Okinawa, where the lance corporal in the U.S. Marines had been sent after he was pulled out of service in the Vietnam War.
He spotted a blue, tie-dyed tank-style T – the epitome, he says, of the hippie generation and everything we were like totally opposite of – and bought it on the spot.
Steward, 62, says he wore the shirt off duty and quite a few years after that until he outgrew it – to express, perhaps, a bit of a hidden longing while in the military and later to conjure up memories of Okinawa.
The shirt still hangs, a few holes in it, in the room that holds his record collection.
After Vietnam, Okinawa was like a paradise, says Steward, a radio operator in the military and a retired over-the-road truck driver. It was beautiful.
Early brand loyalty
In 1964, 19-year-old Dan Hudson of Fort Wayne bought a T-shirt at the annual Labor Day weekend drag races in Indianapolis as a last hurrah before going into the Navy, where he’d get the standard-issue tee.
When he spotted tees reading me fer Ford and me fer Chevy at a booth in front of the grandstand, he picked up the one for Ford fans. Back then, brand-specific tees were rare, he says.
The tees took advantage of the big competition that existed at that time between the automakers’ stock cars and likely weren’t issued by the companies themselves because the shirts had no logos, he recalls.
They were very simple, white with black letters, the retired city firefighter says. At that time, you could buy them for a dollar apiece.
Hudson says he still has the T-shirt. I got it out a few days ago, and it’s still wearable, he says. I only wish that my shirt had the year on it because when I’ve told people I have a shirt from 1964, they’ve said, Aw, I don’t think so.’
Leave it to another octogenarian to cherish a T-shirt made with one of the latest wrinkles in tee technology – custom design for the ultimate in personalization.
Jeanne Leffers, 86, of Fort Wayne, loves a shirt made especially for the 2002 Bybee-Leffers family reunion hosted by her daughter, Laura Bybee, and her family in Spencerville. The shirt was designed by Leffers’ then-preteen granddaughter Brittany Katt of Indianapolis.
The shirt sports bright yellow with a simple black line drawing a family traveling by car down a long road – to get to the reunion, says Leffers, a mother of eight children and grandmother of 12.
The T-shirt tradition got started because the reunion included a bike race in which family members wore matching shirts, says son Dan Leffers of Fort Wayne, who designed one of them.
But as the family grew, the event got to be too big to handle, he said. The 2002 shirt is the last one made. We don’t do it anymore, Jeanne Leffers says. I don’t want to give it up.