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Ubiquitous, Ephemeral, And Frequently Worn With Jeans

T-shirts commemorating Shaun Cassidy and Tiananmen Square mingle with a tie-dye t-shirt owned by the late economist and Nobel Laureate, Elinor Ostrom.

  • installation view of t-shirt exhibition in Columbus

    Image 1 of 2

    Photo: Kelly Richardson

    Ubiqui-tee assembles 128 t-shirts that range in provenance from Beijing to Bloomington.

  • an installation of 128 t-shirts in Columbus

    Image 2 of 2

    Photo: Kelly Richardson

    "We've become the sum of our likes and dislikes, asserts curator Kelly Richardson, "and it's shown on the front of our shirts."

Event Information

Ubiqui-tee: T-Shirts, Design, Culture

An installation of 128 t-shirts from the collections of the Sage Collection, the Children's Museum, and others, exploring the t-shirt as a sign of the times.

IU Center for Art and Design, 310 Jackson St,. Columbus, IN 47201

April 12-June 29, 2013


It’s not a feather boa, a bespoke suit, or a leopard skin pillbox hat. In fact, it may be the least remarkable article of clothing out there. Everyone’s got one; most people have way too many. It’s one-half of the default outfit for much of the population, young and old, female and male.

But it’s also the subject of the current exhibition at the Indiana University Center for Art + Design in Columbus. Presented by IU’s Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection, Ubiqui-tee: T-Shirts, Design, Culture showcases 128 t-shirts from their vault, along with selected examples from the Kinsey Institute, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, the Monroe County History Center, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and the Indiana State Museum.

We’ve become the sum of our likes and dislikes, and it’s shown on the front of our shirts.

The show includes everything from political and sports-related t-shirts, to those touting bands, celebrities, and vodka brands, to such unique items as a tie-dye t-shirt owned by the late economist and Nobel Laureate, Elinor Ostrom.

Off My Back, On Display

So, what could be museum-worthy about a screen-printed t-shirt?

“I often think that the most pedestrian things are the ones that are most interesting,” explains Ubiqui-tee curator Kelly Richardson, “because we take them for granted. The t-shirt definitely falls in that category.”

Richardson is the assistant curator of the Sage Collection, a trove of high-quality vintage apparel, with pictures of fancy things like beaded purses and lace-up boots on its website. The collection was founded about 70 years ago by the first professor of Clothing and Textiles at IU, but–

“Things don’t have to be old for us to collect them, ” Richardson avers. ” Within reason, we try to identify what’s important now, so that curators in 50 years don’t have to scramble.”

Which is how the Center for Art and Design, a relatively new exhibition space in Columbus operated by IU’s Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design, has come to be filled with t-shirts. Instead of being displayed on mannequins or in cases, the 100-plus shirts are installed in a spectacular gateway configuration, on dowel rods suspended from the ceiling in tiers.

“We wanted to do something that conveyed that ubiquity,” says Richardson, “that mass.”

A Wrinkle In Time

Indeed there seems to be a t-shirt for every object, phenomenon, and moment in life. They’re not train tickets or shopping lists, but there’s no doubt that t-shirts count as ephemera. One reads “Follow Doonesbury in the Herald -Telephone”– a relic from a permanently sealed-off time, place, and media culture. Another commemorates the last field-house registration at IU, before computers made that system obsolete. T-shirts from Fall 2012 Presidential campaigns, gathered in the heat of the season, now “just seem old,” notes Richardson.

There’s an eerie parallel between the short shelf-life of their messages and the disposability of the garments themselves. The grim realities of third-world manufacturing and first-world throwing-out lurk on the shadow side of this celebration of popular culture.

Code For Cool

The back-story of how a man’s undergarment became the most common piece of American apparel still informs its contemporary significance. Popularized as standard-issue underwear among American soldiers in the first two world wars, the plain white t-shirt became weekend wear at mid-century–code for masculinity, informality, and the working class, and co-opted by iconic screen rebels–think Marlon Brando and James Dean.

A lot of the t-shirt’s cachet or allure is with people seeking what they think is an authentic experience. It’s seen as the sign of the working class or the proletariat.

Retailers recognized the trend, and started marketing the garment. Screen-printing first found its way to children’s wear, then exploded across everyone’s chest in the media-saturated 1970s.

“It didn’t take very long for companies to figure out that people would pay for the privilege of promoting someone’s product on their body,” explains Richardson. “The implication is that you become a walking, talking billboard.”

Been There, Done That

The t-shirt can be badge of belonging, a souvenir–the proof that you’ve run a marathon, been to a legendary concert. Some t-shirts are hard to come by–the Black Dog restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard used to make its shirts available only at its remote location.

But the Internet, and the mass production of graphic tees emblazoned with ersatz vintage advertisements, have changed all that. “You can buy an experience,” Richardson shrugs; “you don’t even have to be there. A lot of the t-shirt’s cachet or allure is with people seeking what they think is an authentic experience.”

What can we assume about a nation so eager to display signs across our bodies?

“We are more and more attaching ourselves to products, to people, to events–searching for an identity through these items,” speculates Richardson. “Maybe it’s visual shorthand. You don’t have to stop and strike up a conversation; you can let others know your point-of-view without saying a word. Your t-shirt says everything for you. As with social media, we’ve become very public people. We all are the sums of our likes and dislikes, and that’s shown on the front of our shirts.”

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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