When Does a T-Shirt Become So Much More Than a T-Shirt?

A girl's guide to the intersection of emotion and function.
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Mick Jagger and Bill Wyman on the The Rolling Stones's 1989 Steel Wheels Tour in Atlanta, Ga. Photo: Paul Natkin/WireImage

Mick Jagger and Bill Wyman on the The Rolling Stones's 1989 Steel Wheels Tour in Atlanta, Ga. Photo: Paul Natkin/WireImage

People like to associate fathers and ties. For my dad, it's T-shirts. He wears them so often that he can never seem to have enough, but there are a few that are strictly off limits. These are pieces that even he, a man who is pragmatic to a fault, doesn't wear. Instead, they sit neatly folded in his dresser and are only occasionally broken out to be shown to the audience at large.

Sometimes, he gives one to my brother and me to keep. There's a sleeveless T-shirt he bought during South Haven, Mich.'s annual Blueberry Festival in the mid-'80s. I'm told it was originally candy red, but after years of bike rides and beach trips, it had become a sun-bleached peach. There's the Chicago Cubs tee he took home from spring training in Mesa, Ariz. around the time I was born. I was swimming in it when he first loaned it to me for a family outing to a Cubs vs. White Sox game at what was then Comiskey Park.

Then, there's the Rolling Stones T-shirt from the band's 1989 North American tour. I have no conscious memory of when it entered my life, but according to a well-mummified stack of pictures, the tee — which I reportedly called "The Tongue Shirt" — was my favorite thing to wear as a toddler. History suggests I wore it as a dress, and it became my official uniform for rollerblading down our home's central hallway. My dad and I maintained joint custody of the T-shirt until I went to college, which is when he awarded it to me in full. After my parents dropped me off at my dorm, having unpacked my desk supplies and installed scented shelf liners, I folded the shirt and tucked it where it had always been — in a drawer. It's what my dad did. And there it stayed, too sacred to be out in the open, for years. 

But two summers ago, the T-shirt came up with colleagues in a conversation about Mick Jagger. The group opinion was that the tee sounded "chic" and I should start wearing it before it was eaten by dust mites. I appreciated their encouragement, but something felt wrong. My dad's T-shirts were so rooted in nostalgia that they were also reflective of the person he was at that time. Did I really want to share that with the world?

Not to spoil the ending for you, but I did it: I started wearing the T-shirt. After weeks of internal discussion, I wore it to the office to much excitement. "Your dad's shirt!" my co-workers said. "Yeah!" I said back. It was comforting to know that there were, in fact, people who understood the shirt's backstory; they knew my dad, without actually knowing him. So, I wore it more and more — to birthday parties, family gatherings and exactly one One Direction concert. 

Despite hiding away for so many years, the shirt has grown holey. I noticed that a once-flimsy gap at the neck has widened to a gash, and the hem has become frayed beyond what you might find in a vintage store. I've considered many solutions, the most logical of which is to frame and hang it where I see it every day. Living in a small apartment in New York, that's not exactly a difficult task. But I'd miss wearing it, actually feeling the paper-thin cotton on my body, and being able to tell others that it belonged to my dad, and that it was mine now, and that I loved it.

Earlier this summer, my dad reached into his archives to pull out four tees that predate me. I was most taken with a banana yellow T-shirt that protested installing lights at Wrigley Field. (Back then, it was the only major league park where night games were not played.) Little did he know in 1988 that those lights eventually allowed for one my most treasured memories: spending countless evenings at Wrigley together, watching our favorite team. He didn't offer to loan the shirt to me, and I didn't ask. It's still a part of him, and I wasn't ready to bear that responsibility just yet.

As heirlooms, T-shirts toe an interesting line between emotion and function. A Victorian armchair can get passed from generation to generation, but its owners didn't experience a life sitting in it as you do wearing a T-shirt. I look down at my dad's shirts and I see him extending a car ride by three minutes because a favorite song of ours came on the radio just as we were nearing our driveway, or standing in the kitchen sifting pancake mix as he's done every Sunday I've been alive. But like an armchair, a T-shirt shows its love through wear and tear — though it's easier to get a piece of furniture repaired.

My dad also has a pair of socks. They're red and polka-dotted. He wore them to his wedding, many of my gymnastics competitions and my college graduation. Recently, I overheard my mom mention that she hadn't seen them in a while. He's saving them for when I get married. I wonder if, after that, he'll frame them.

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