Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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© Copyright 2004





In Fashion…The T-shirt tale

The T-shirt is perhaps the only garment that has progressed from a purely innerwear to a stylish outerwear. Can you think of a wardrobe today that has no T-shirt? I certainly cannot. A unisex top, the T-shirt is as popular with women as it is with men. Even those who may not feel exactly comfortable sporting it, do so at home. Some women just wear a T-shirt, and nothing else! So, the humble tee’s image is far beyond the mundane. It can be so very sexy, I suppose.

If you were to look at the garment’s historical evolution, it has had a strong connection with sensuousness. According to one story, which seems most plausible, sailors in the British Royal Navy at the end of 1800s wore a sleeveless undergarment quite like today’s tank top. Often, they wore nothing else besides their trousers, at least during their daily chores. The formal uniforms were saved for very special days. But, once, when a member of the British Royalty came to inspect the fleet, “the brass apparently looked at their men and decided that sweaty, hairy underarms were not a fit sight for the Queen and her family. The sailors were ordered to sew sleeves on their underwear."

A dozen years later, around 1912, the British Navy accelerated, without quite realising it though, the development of this modest, some would call lowly, underwear. The Navy felt that despite the sleeves, the outfit that sailors wore was far too sexy: its V-neck exposed the hairy, manly chest. So, the seamen were told to refashion their tops with a “crew” or round neckline and a vaguely “T” shaped silhouette. Thus emerged the T-shirt, thus grew the pretty butterfly out of an ugly worm.

The march of the tee could not be stopped after this. It flew effortlessly into cupboards, and it titillated the eye as it excited the mind, offering as it did endless, endless possibilities. By World War II, 12 million people were wearing what was once the prerogative of the British Navy. The T-shirt’s transformation from a drab military uniform into a stylish civilian dress was as smooth as it was colourful.

And, like so much else in fashion, cinema helped in this image shift as well. The producers of the 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz”, thought of the tee for the first time as a medium of advertisement as well as a souvenir. The idea hit the bull’s eye, and the T-shirt climbed a step higher in the ladder of acceptability.

Couched in this acceptance was a sexual element. The T-shirt became an empty canvas on which one could write or print one’s innermost fantasies. One magazine at that time wrote that the tee “allowed individuals to indulge in showing gender" and in the "erotic presentation of the self."

The tee became an icon of style and sex, class and culture, and even as it sold 180 million pieces in 1951, Marlon Brando brandished the outfit in Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). The lovelorn Brando wearing a thin, stretched T-Shirt created "a sexualised brutality ... a dangerous ... incoherent sort of manhood."

Four years later, the tee sewed its rebellious rock-n-roll roots with James Dean as he mumbled his anti-authoritarian way through “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955). In the 1960s, toasted tee-wearing hippies took on the “Establishment in Easy Rider” (1969), while the sexual revolution of the 1970s was given form (and visibly erect nipples) via Jacqueline Bisset's wet tee in “The Deep” (1977).

Selling now way beyond one billion garments every year, the T-shirt still endures, and what is more, continues to shock. Walk on the road in any city, and you are sure to come across the most provocative slogans etched on the tees. “Free Tibet”, says one. “I am available”, screams another. “Feed the poor”. “USA”. “Kiss Me”. And, do what ever you want to, but wear me.

I shall now talk a little more about the T-Shirt and give you an Indian update.

The T-shirt is now an integral part of India’s street scene. There is perhaps no place without the Tee. Drive into any small village or town, and you will find certainly some men wearing one. Women may not, at least in public, but in the privacy of their homes, they do. Of course, the T-shirt is extremely common in cities and bigger towns. I find men and women sporting it all the time: it is comfortable for jogging, it is good enough to be partying in and it is apt for just about anything else.

Obviously so, because the tee, as I wrote in my last column, assumed a greater sense of respectability once it transformed itself from an innerwear, meant to cover men’s hairy chests and underarms, to an outer garment fit enough to make style statements.

An interesting example of this comes from two Indians in their twenties, Rajiv Ramchandani and Madan Chabria. College chums, they are now putting India on a t-shirt! Yes, in a sense.

In 2006, they saw during a holiday that the most popular souvenir was a tee with a map of a country or at least its name or a monument there. I have seen ‘Paris’ boldly printed on a t-shirt or the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the London Bridge or New York’s Statue of Liberty. But I have not come across a Taj Mahal or a Golconda Fort on any tee.

Ramchandani and Chabria opened a company, Tantra, soon after they came back home from their vacation. The two manufacture tees with the most hilarious designs. Ramchandani said recently that "we delight in taking conventional Indian images and converting them into exotic T-shirt art. It is not what we say, but how we say it."

And they say it in a fashion that can only be called "desi gauche". Using themes that range from political corruption to mythology to masala, the basic base of black is transformed into a riot of colours, cartoons and symbols.

Indians have probably had enough of fake Versaces and Chanels. Now, they feel like getting into something that is not just Indian, but informal, interesting, funny and different.

Let us take a look at a few of Tantra’s popular creations. One of them has a picture of Ganesh and a caption that tugs at your heart: 50% Human. 50% Elephant. 100% Cute. Another tee has a Rajput prince asking, “Your palace or mine?” A third t-shirt has a couple in a Kamasutra pose claiming, “It is good for your back”.

Apart from Tantra and its mantra, the tee has now caught the fancy of even well known designers. New Delhi-based Ritu Kumar is styling some fabulous stuff. This season will see a variation of the classic T-shirt. It will no longer be a single piece, but two outfits worn one on top of the other. The inner one will cling to your body and have a round neck. The outer one will be somewhat baggy with a V-neck and a draped silhouette. Kumar’s tees will have embroidery or crochet with mohair sleeves and woollen collars, and can be worn with a skirt or a pair of jeans.

Designer Delna Poonawalla also uses elaborate embroidery on the T-shirt to convert it into a dressy party wear. Some of her tee collections have been inspired by the Rolling Stones with their renowned tongue logo. Samita Bangargi’s T-shirts have a big exclamation mark embroidered on them, and this is her signature. Goa’s Wendell Rodricks has naughty words on his tees: Laid and Paid or Rent. And these appear across the chest. Curiously, these are for men, but women have been picking these T-shirts by their dozens.

And, then, tees come in different lengths and a mind-boggling variety of fabrics, and these can transport you from morning to night. But, unlike the late Hollywood star, Marlon Brando, who shocked the world by dressing in just a tee and pair of trousers, we are yet to see any radical move by either men or women. Maybe, girls will stun some day by pulling on a tee and walking out without trousers.

(Webposted February 6 2007)