Take a peek into anyone’s closet in America, and it’s pretty likely there will be plenty of T-shirts.
Whether they were shot out of cannons during sporting events or worn to bring light to serious causes, T-shirts have been a form of self-expression that have undergone changes in function and meaning over time.
The University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum will house the “Identi-Tee: Beyond the White T-Shirt” exhibit Saturday, Jan.16 through Saturday, April 23 on the second floor of the North Gallery.
The museum also will host a public reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20 to mark the exhibit’s opening.
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Lana Burgess, faculty curator, said the idea for “Identi-Tee” came from Sallie Boggs, a faculty member in USC’s retail department, when one of her students wrote a paper about two years ago about the history of T-shirts. Boggs wanted to encourage more of her students to visit the museum, so she and Burgess collaborated to bring “Identi-Tee” to McKissick.
Burgess and graduate students started the task of creating the exhibit by researching the history of the garment and identifying T-shirts that impacted history.
Burgess said major exhibits usually take three to five years to bring to fruition, but “Identi-Tee” took a little less time because they tried to gather garments from local collections and used reproductions.
The exhibit will feature about 50 T-shirts, as well as historic photographs, ranging from actor Marlon Brando sporting a plain white T-shirt to professional basketball player LeBron James wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “I can’t breathe,” the last words uttered by a black shop owner who was allegedly choked by police in 2014. Others include a tie-dye Woodstock T-shirt, presidential campaign T-shirts, athletic T-shirts, a “Choose Life” T-shirt and a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt.
Burgess said there are two threads going through the exhibit, one of which looks into the history and chronology of the T-shirt itself starting from the early 20th century to how they are manufactured today.
“(The exhibit looks) back at union suits, how it was considered an undergarment and the transformation to becoming outwear,” Burgess said.
The second theme looks into customization through silk screening and the use of T-shirts as a form of self-expression.
The exhibit also will feature a section on sweatshops and understanding where many T-shirts come from and what happens to those behind the scenes.
It’s no coincidence that the garment that’s the subject of the exhibit is also ubiquitous on college campuses. The exhibit challenges students about how they self-identify through their clothes and know what messages they are putting out to the public by the T-shirts they wear.
“You can put anything on a T-shirt, and the content can be subversive and reaction-getting,” she said. “… There is some level of provocation.”
Identi-Tee: Beyond the White T-shirt
WHERE: University of South Carolina McKissick Museum, second floor, North Gallery
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The exhibit runs Saturday, Jan. 16 through Saturday, April 23.