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Original Issue


This year's sleeper among the slew of books that always come out at Christmastime for the active, sports-minded reader is The Illustrated History of the T Shirt (Chatterton & Irving, $15.95) by the former husband-and-wife team of Rafael and Kimberly Lopez-Houlihan, who have taken what appears to be a mundane subject and given us an important cultural document.

Among other things, the Lopez-Houlihans reveal that the T shirt has a long and illustrious history, dating back to the second century A.D., when the Emperor Hadrian wore a black T shirt while announcing executions. In America, Puritans denounced the garment as "Satan's shirt," believing that, because it had no collar, the Devil could find his way down the wearer's spine and, hence, into his soul. It appears, too (though the documentation is a bit sketchy here) that the name of the shirt derives not from its shape but from the fact that in the 17th century, longshoremen in Annapolis, Md. wore collarless shirts while unloading tea; this was to avoid having the little bits of leaf get caught in their collars and itch them. (As the authors point out, tea bags came along much later.)

Dealing with more recent times, the Lopez-Houlihans examine the phenomenon of printing words on T shirts. How did this curious custom come about? Houlihan cites the prohibition against billboards on interstates; Lopez points to the increased use of instant replay. (One of them would seem to be barking up the wrong tree.) In any event, readers—especially those who favor "verbal" T shirts—are in for a shock. With the aid of a Ford Foundation grant, the authors found that 79% of verbal T-shirt wearers were mentally defective. By comparison, only 68% of tattooed people fall into this category.

Another of their revolutionary discoveries is that 81% of those who prefer verbal T shirts are expressing a subconscious desire to be automobiles, the so-called "back-word" T shirts serving as bumper-sticker substitutes.

The authors further report that those who wear T shirts with vulgar slogans are sexually dysfunctional and unable to cope with the opposite sex except in T-shirt dialogue.

The Illustrated History of the T Shirt is also a fashion guide. Space permits citing only a couple of the Lopez-Houlihan tips:

•Tucking T shirts in panty hose is a no-no.

•Be careful you don't put a T shirt on backward. How to be sure? The little tag inside the neck goes in the back.