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When the Shirt Hits the Fan

Schools are cracking down on them; one state wants some of them banned. T-shirts with political, religious and, especially, sexual messages are making style a legal issue.

May 29, 1997|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here in the Decade of the Nose Ring, fashion knows no boundaries.

Given the prevalence of pierced private parts, eye-popping hair colors, hormone-alert necklines and pants that ride too low, it's easy to argue that anything goes.

Yet when it comes to public displays of words and images, society still draws a line. Across the nation, people wearing T-shirts with religious, sexual or political messages are routinely getting bounced from schools, amusement parks, offices and other locales.

And one state, South Carolina, is even considering a ban on some shirts.

"People are trying to hide behind the 1st Amendment to make money selling what I would consider smut," complains Mark Kelley, the Myrtle Beach, S.C., legislator who wrote the anti-indecent apparel measure. "They don't realize what it's doing to the minds of younger kids."

What exactly inspired Kelley's outrage?

"If I could blink you over to Myrtle Beach and walk you past [the tourist T-shirt shops], you wouldn't be asking that question," he says. "You'd see four-letter words, people in positions of intercourse. . . . I don't think this is where our forefathers wanted the 1st Amendment to go."

Of course, battles over the limits of free speech are as old as the republic itself, but the increasingly sexual nature of T-shirt messages is changing the debate--and the law. Not so long ago, "Party Naked" was about as raunchy as things got. Now, most shirts in that genre are unprintable here.

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Message T-shirts have become so ubiquitous that it's hard to imagine them not existing. But undergarment historians say the phenomenon didn't really begin until about 1970.

Before that, Americans advertised their sentiments via lapel buttons, ribbons or even pipes with bowls carved to look like politicians. Among the earliest such trinkets is a button from George Washington's inauguration.

"The T-shirt is just a larger and more personalized version of the political button," says Edith Mayo, a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution. "If you want to get something off your chest, you put something on your chest."

The primordial political T-shirt emerged in 1948, during Thomas Dewey's presidential bid, but it was sized for a child. The first adult political T arrived--depending on who is asked--in either 1964 or 1968.

Aside from that, the protest decade was surprisingly devoid of 1st Amendment fashion. For much of the 1960s, coats and ties were so de rigueur that "the gesture of wearing a T-shirt at all was sufficiently rebellious that no message was needed," says Richard Martin, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute.

Still, a few such shirts did appear. The Smithsonian collection, for example, includes a shirt imprinted with a giant red fist, worn at Harvard during 1968 or '69. And Mayo mentions a handful of late '60s Ts that promoted women's liberation and the NAACP. Most were hand-decorated with spray paint and stencils or silk screen.

In 1970, however, thanks to a technological advance called "plastisol-ink heat transfer," full-color slogan T-shirts exploded onto the national scene.

And that's when the shirt really hit the fan.

At first, most of the censorship fights revolved around political messages--and T-shirt wearers usually won, based on a pair of Supreme Court rulings.

In one, Tinker vs. Des Moines, a brother and sister were suspended for wearing black armbands at high school to protest the Vietnam War. But in 1969 the justices backed the pupils, declaring that students don't forfeit "their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

In the other case, Cohen vs. California, a man was jailed for entering a Los Angeles courthouse in a jacket that said, "F--- the draft." He was convicted of disturbing the peace, but the verdict was overturned on free-speech grounds.

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More recently, however, the content of T-shirt messages has shifted from political to sexual--and judges have been far less sympathetic.

The kinds of shirts causing trouble are legion. A recent visit to two Newport Beach T-shirt shops turned up plenty of examples, but only a handful that are printable: "Zero to Horny in 2.5 Beers," "I Like My Coffee Like I Like My Sex (Hot, Strong and on the Kitchen Table)" and "Bite Me!"

There were also numerous sexual takeoffs on Nike's "Just Do It" slogan and a lewd, tasteless "Oriental Delights" restaurant menu.

The primary customers seem to be teens and college students, usually tourists, store clerks say. But plenty of middle-aged and older couples stopped to chortle at the window displays.

Does anyone ever complain? Not really, says a salesman: "They gave up."

But there has been a backlash.

The biggest crackdown on such apparel has been in the classroom. Some schools worry that allowing suggestive shirts exposes them to sexual harassment lawsuits. Others say such messages violate community moral standards.

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