Remember when undershirts were white? Undershirts had come on the scene a couple of generations before I was born. Men wore them to absorb perspiration beneath their “real” shirts.

All underwear was white then. I recall, as a child, that every once in a while, my mother would gather up all of my father’s undershirts and give them a good soaking in bleach before machine-washing them in an attempt to erase perspiration stains.

That soft, white undergarment was popular for boys, too, keeping them extra warm under their shirts or jerseys in winter. As we see everywhere today, it has become permissible for boys and men to wear undershirts in hot weather, even without a “real” shirt over them. Such shirts must be very white, though, and showing no signs of “wear,” in my opinion.

Undershirts for girls didn’t have sleeves at all, but cotton straps instead. So they weren’t really T-shirts, but were certainly worn under shirts and blouses, nevertheless. Such cozy garments also served to bridge the gap between many a young lady’s distress at her mother’s pronouncement that the time had come to transition from “undershirt” to the initial annoying confines of a bra.

It was in response, surely, to their budding femininity that girls underwear took the first step to suggest soft colors and lacy shoulder straps on their “underthings.” In today’s vernacular, we’d say that colored underwear “went viral”!

Enough of the “history lesson.” Today, we almost never see man, woman or child out in the mainstream world wearing a plain, white T-shirt. Be they cotton, cotton blends, even silk — we find tees in every color, and I’d say that in the last 30 or 40 years, they have further expanded their horizons.

They do things we couldn’t have imagined when I was a kid: They advertise products; they display school and college emblems; they ask questions; they identify our political leans; they might even print a word from the dictionary followed by its entire definition.

Pregnant women sometimes wear oversized tees in lieu of maternity tops. You’ve likely seen a few of those shirts displaying the word “BABY” with a huge arrow pointing to their understandably proud bellies.

Political slogans abound on people’s backs and, sometimes, fronts. Clothes designers aren’t one bit shy to spell their names out in bold letters — or sometimes, elegantly, more discreetly, like one I saw recently for Ralph Lauren. No denying that man’s good taste!

Yesterday, I nearly tripped off the sidewalk curb, trying to finish reading someone’s shirt titled: “Periodic Table of Star Wars Elements.” And it went on to list them. Unfortunately, I can’t leave a sentence without first finishing it. This attribute/curse has caused me to trip (and sometimes fall) all of my life once I had learned to read.

The ad for Champion sportswear read simply: “It takes a little more to make a Champion.” There were logos for everything from the Patriots to the Gloucester Fishermen to the Boston Red Sox to make my head spin, and all for the hope of reading them before I fell on my face.

I almost never even encounter a T-shirt without it being ruined by something printed on it. I saw one the other day that, if I did wear T-shirts with messages on them, I might consider, but I don’t. It read: “You have to be really old to remember when T-shirts were white.”

I would never, ever buy and wear a shirt with words on it.

I did, though, last week. It’s a black shirt from my favorite fashion store, Second Glance. It reads, in tastefully small letters: “I’d be lost without you.” I’ll wear it only to bed. 

Gloucester resident Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.



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