Sunday, April 27, 2008

K's First Prompt: T-Shirts -- Why?

K means to tease me with this prompt. He has noticed my reluctance to wear the t-shirts that our bosses have given us to wear on special school occasions, like assembly days, Fridays, and certain team-meeting days. Of course I do wear them, as for my bosses, one's sartorial choices on such days reflects one's willingness to be a "team player." Now, one thing that I am is a team player. However, I have serious concerns about the team uniform when it is so ugly, so unbecoming, and really, so unprofessional. I can tell that my boss understands this because in 29 years of working in the same school, there has been only one day that he has not worn a tie. I saw him on that day. He looked really uncomfortable.

Now, if you are a woman, the choice to wear a t-shirt at work is a difficult one. My male colleagues, who, with the exception of K, all dress as if they have come straight from the golf course -- such is the uniform of a male secondary-school teacher -- look natural and even somehow slightly more masculine in pressed khakis and a school-regulation shirts. However, a t-shirt with the slogan of the year does not become a woman. My colleague, L, is a woman of a certain age who brings a sense of class to all endeavors, including dressing. She has pointed out that a woman in a t-shirt is just this far from looking like a bag lady. She is so right.

I keep my school t-shirts in a drawer in my desk, so that they are easily accessible on days when I have forgotten that we are to wear them and so they do not get mixed up in my closet with the other school t-shirts that I have been given or inherited -- all seven years of them. These I work out in. On those days when we proclaim our team loyalty, I wear a blazer and premium denim. Until recently I have worn Converse with this uniform, but now I have some high-heeled tennis shoes to wear as an alternative. The last time we had to wear our t-shirts, a few weeks ago, K told me he was proud of me.

But really, why? Why has the t-shirt, so baggy, so unbecoming, so ubiquitous, become what it is? Why do people -- especially women -- want to wear something that makes them look drab? Living in Denver, a place wear young, vibrant, sexy, good-looking, well-dressed people seem to all want to leave their hard-partying, hard-skiing twenties and early thirties to live in the suburbs and gossip about their neighbors, t-shirts are a metaphor for this entropy. There are beautiful, alluring people who as soon as they sign a mortgage on a house outside of the city center change from wearing clothing that makes them look good into clothing that a self-respecting person would wear only to work in the garden or paint a room. It is shocking. I see these same people at the theater, wearing khaki pants and sweatshirts. Have they just come from watering the spinach, I wonder.

Perhaps the t-shirt is the perfect uniform. It is easily reproducible, cheap, and long-lasting. (Nothing last longer than the t-shirts I have been given, which I launder constantly, but some how remain indestructible). It hides the uniqueness of the wearer's body. In a typical crew-neck, big-sleeved t-shirt you can't tell whether the person has breasts or curves, good pecks or deltoid muscles. The slope of the cut away from the neck de-emphasizes the shoulders, which may be strong and pretty. It forces the wearer to blend in, to be known only by the number on its back. In that way it protects the wearer. It makes her blend in with the crowd so that she doesn't have to stand for anything -- to take any risk, least of all sartorial. It makes her anonymous. It makes her androgynous. It de-sexualizes her, which is an idea that could be at the core of L's observation. It protects her from attention that she may not want. It is the Western equivalent of a Burka.

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