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Label This Swell

October 22, 2002

Now that you've waded through the serious issue stuff above, here's something that affects your life intimately: T-shirt labels. Those seriously annoying little fabric doodads sewn into the back of T-shirts to cause stubborn, irritating itches right where you can't reach them are now history, at least in Hanes T-shirts. About time.

The company made the historic announcement recently in nationwide promotions designed to spur comfort and maybe, who knows, sales in a stagnant T-shirt market. Even Michael Jordan will go tagless. So you know how important this wardrobe development is.

Besides covering the body, T-shirts have become an important 1st Amendment issue, proclaiming a wearer's affiliation, beliefs or even ignorance.

But according to Hanes, two-thirds of all men were hot under the collar; they didn't like prickly labels that felt like hairs from a new haircut. Hanes says half of all male T-shirt wearers took a stand for independence, eventually ripping out the label themselves. Imagine the courage! Some normally law-abiding moms also admitted cutting T-shirt tags from the clothing of whining youngsters.

Though removing a T-shirt label is not as defiant as, say, ripping a consumer warning tag from a new mattress, it could violate a law requiring that labels be visible to consumers. Envision the legislative arguments over what information must be on these inaccessible tags in minuscule print on the back of most necks. Not your Lincoln-Douglass debates. But relax, Hanes now heat-prints the same information in the same place.

To be fair in this emotional debate, there are downsides to tagless T-shirts. Spouses and parents will no longer be able to display silent affection by tucking a bent tag back inside the shirt of a family member. Removing all T-shirt tags also maliciously increases the early-morning challenge of discerning which is the front and the back of undershirts.

And because each label covers 1 square inch of fabric and Hanes annually sells about 36% of this country's 300 million T-shirts, that means some 108 million square inches of labels will not be made each year.

Someone will find a depressed village devastated by the removal of its vital local industry, weaving useless polyester tags to annoy Americans far away. So be it. This is the kind of progress America needs to lift its spirits on an autumn Tuesday.

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