Tee Season

You cool kids are all wearing those zany slogan T-shirts? How quaint.

"Hi, Dorkwad."

OK, I suppose that's not the greeting you expected—particularly not when it comes out the mouth of an adorable little woodland animal. But that's the greeting you'll get from It's Happy Bunny, a popular and cheerfully cruel line of T-shirts, stickers, notebooks, and other teen accessories, all featuring a harmless-looking rabbit that flings such vitriol as "Whatever, You Moron" and "Run Along and Die Now." Not surprisingly, someone failed to see the humor in It's Happy Bunny: namely, a Boca Raton retiree mortally and loudly offended by a T-shirt sold by Sears that read, "Seriously. Old People Have Got to Go Now." "The children of today don't have good role models as it is," she complained to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last month.

Sears pulled that particular It's Happy Bunny shirt out of its stores in the end, which was no small decision to make. T-shirts are big business—in fact, economist Pietra Rivoli argues in her recent study The Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy (Wiley), they are the epitome of industrialization and international trade. The Industrial Revolution began with British cotton textile factories, and little wonder: Through the early 1800s, half of Britain's exports were cotton goods. Our own era of empire means that, bolstered by the finest subsidies and ag tech that pork barrel money can buy, the United States maintains a fearsome lead over the rest of the world in cotton production. A single acre of West Texas land now produces enough cotton for a Chinese factory to produce 1,200 T-shirts. These blank shirts, returning to the U.S. for a wholesale cost of $1.42 after steep tariffs, then get silk-screened, live out their sweaty lives, and are cast off for about 25 cents each to the secondhand mitumba markets of Tanzania, where residents of Dar es Salaam can puzzle over a cute rabbit telling them to cram it.

All hail the new Victorians!
All hail the new Victorians!

The beginnings of the T-shirt are traditionally ascribed to American sailors in World War I; the newly created shirt allowed ease of movement and quick drying. But the tee received its big boost from returning soldiers in the 1940s, after military servicemen took to wearing the eminently practical white cotton tees. Throw in Brando's sweaty T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean's iconic white tee in Rebel Without a Cause, and you had the making of a fashion that would fully blossom with the wild and unruly growth of tie-dyes, iron-ons, and silk screens by the late 1960s.

That, at least, is the pop mythology. The tee's actual history, though, is a little more complicated than that. Fashionable colored T-shirts were being sold on Fifth Avenue as early as 1931 at the B. Altman department store: "The T Shirt becomes respectable—actually smart," they boasted in the Times. By 1951, before Dean and Brando had brought their white tees to the big screen, Life magazine was already gushing over such elaborate T-shirt couture as a tee woven to resemble houndstooth tweed.

And while Happy Rabbit's slogan "You Suck and That's Sad" seems straightforward enough, it turns out that this too has unexpectedly deep roots. The conventional wisdom in textile history is that slogans on T-shirts grew out of the pre-war practice of college athletic departments stenciling, say, "Property of Virginia Tech" on their athletic shirts. But I was astonished to discover this headline while paging through an old Chicago Tribune from June 10, 1897:

MOTTOES ON REVOLVING SHIRT FRONT. Flippant Youth May Now Display Prominently the Phrase,'There Are No Flies on Me.'

It seems that Victorian hipsters realized one hot summer day that the octagonal celluloid shirt-bosom, which you could revolve around to display different designs, made for a handy personal billboard. "No Flies on Me" was the casual kiss-off of the moment, the "whatever" of 1897 slang; and so with a few strokes of a pen on their shirtfronts, these Chicago smartasses created a defining fashion of modern life. But the strange thing is just how inevitable the slogan shirt's invention was. It was a direct descendant of a fad that had consumed America for the entire previous year: the slogan pin-back button.

Flippant youth at work again? Hardly. The enameled-tin button, suitable for sloganeering on your shirtfront or backpack, started in 1896 with a bunch of old cigar-chewing Republicans. The newly patented bauble was snapped up by Meyer Bimberg—a sometime embezzler, political gadfly, and Harlem theater impresario—when he got a hot tip at the 1896 convention that William McKinley was going to announce Garrett Hobart as his running mate. Bimberg printed up 100,000 of the newfangled buttons emblazoned with their faces; when the nomination was announced, he'd beaten everyone else to the punch, and "Bim the Button Man" instantly made his name and fortune.

Message buttons soon followed, though they weren't exactly in-your-face sentiments. One of the first ones simply read, "I Am for Sound Money." You can guess how long that sort of sobriety lasted. Within months, High Admiral Cigarettes and its ilk were including promotional pin-backs in every pack, and they weren't exactly of the Sound Money variety. Kids immediately showed up at school with what the Brooklyn Eagle aptly termed "advertisements for their lung destroyers," and by the fall of 1896 teachers, parents, and newspaper columnists had a new craze to get in a tizzy over.

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