James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center

Saturday, October 31, 2015

T-Shirts Put the Text in Textile

Workers Conference Against Briggs/Proposition 6, [1978]

Admit it.

You have a drawer full of T-shirts at home.

Maybe even more than one!

Don't sweat it.

You are not alone.

I have a few drawers of T-shirts and I can't bear to part with some because of their sentimental value. A few are as unsullied as the day I got them. While most are well loved, threadbare, and stained--but clean!

So why am I writing about T-shirts?

Gay Freedom Day, 1978
Well, it might surprise you to know that the Hormel Center archives contain more than just paper, photographs, and audio-visual recordings. We have clothing here, too. Most of it in the form of T-shirts!

Though often dismissed as less important than their paper counterparts, T-shirts document particular moments in time through a combination of text, graphic design, and fabric. They are the wearable version of banners, leaflets, broadsides, and posters.

Lesbians & Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action, undated

Rubys, undated
I've selected a handful of shirts from the Nancy Tucker T-Shirt Collection (GLC 25). Usually these were produced to celebrate an event or organization. Gay pride parades, film festivals, walk-a-thons, bars and dance clubs, rallies, marches, and political actions are a few of the subjects that T-shirts memorialize. You'll notice a few of the annual Pride parades, the bar Rubys, Pets Are Wonderful Support, LGADDA, Living Sober, and a rally against the Briggs Initiative.

PAWS, Pets Are Wonderful Support, San Francisco, undated

Living Sober, San Francisco, 1986
The Nancy Tucker T-shirt Collection is not the only collection with T-shirts. The Barbara Grier-Naiad Press Collection also has a large number of shirts for Naiad press books, lesbian bookstores, and events. Several smaller collections contain T-shirts as well. These pieces of memorabilia usually get worn to threads and then turned into rags for house cleaning. Fortunately, some folks have saved their T-shirts and given them to the library.

Gay Freedom Day, San Francisco, 1980

San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade & Celebration, 1994

Film historian Jenni Olson brought a great website to my attention. Wearing Gay History has a fantastic database with images of T-shirts and additional information on creators, dates, etc. I have had a wonderful time exploring the images there. It contains photos of shirts from several different libraries and archives.

Freedom '92 [San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day, 1992]
What's fun about shirts, and any other sort of memorabilia, is that they are produced for a specific event. Those memories bubble to the surface when we wear, hold or see these items again. It is a way to reminisce that engages our visual and tactile senses. And it's proof that a historical document can be written on fabric just as easily as on paper. I invite you to take a moment today to look through your T-shirt drawer. And remember.

The Nancy Tucker T-Shirt Collection (GLC 25) is available through the San Francisco History Center, 6th floor, Main Library.

1 comment:

Eric Gonzaba said...

Thanks for the "Wearing Gay History" shout out! Eric Gonzaba here, the site's creator! I'll be in San Francisco photographing some t-shirts for the site next week. Perhaps I can find time to photograph the Nancy Tucker collection while in town!

What a wonderful blog!