Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Some T-shirts sport insect designs

black t-shirt with praying mantid image

T-shirts - or tees in modern vernacular - are called that because they resemble the letter T when laid out flat. Exactly when or why that former item of underwear became outerwear is a matter of speculation. But it did. Boy, did it. T-shirts are everywhere!

In the late 1800s both men's and women's underwear could be described structurally as one piece. Such underwear was a combination of two items: an undershirt and leggings. Because two pieces of apparel were combined to produce that type of underwear it became known as a union suit. Some people refer to union suits as longjohns because of the bare-knuckle prizefighter John Sullivan who wore them under his boxing trunks.

The T-shirt as we know it began supplanting the full-body union suit in the history of undergarments in the early 1900s. The transition to outerwear began with short-sleeved, white-colored cotton undershirts issued to sailors by the U.S. Navy during World War II. Other military branches also began supplying T-shirts to service personnel. Soon both sailors and soldiers were wearing the upper parts of their undergarments as work wear.

Consequently, to borrow an old line from vaudeville comedians, "A funny thing happened on the way to the theater." The T-shirt shed its seldom-seen existence and became socially acceptable outer attire for the general population. People began adding hand lettering to them. The earliest messages on were informational and identified the wearer with an institution such as a military base or unit or college.

Commercial printing of T-shirts began in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1933 with a University of Michigan design. Soon advertizing designs and slogans began appearing on T-shirts. Then, better methods of transferring lettering and pictures to fabrics were developed and the rest of the story, as they say, is history.

Today the manufacturing and the printing of T-shirts are multi-million-dollar industries. They are available in a multitude of colors and designs. And prices. The plain white cotton undershirt has come a long way, baby!

Rowdy Roach t-shirt

Insects and the science of entomology, like almost anything else, can be found adorning T-shirts. It's not surprising that big, beautiful butterflies are frequently depicted on them. So are large and showy types of beetles. Almost any insect you can think of has probably graced a T-shirt. You can find dragonflies, fireflies, real flies, ladybugs and praying mantids. These could be called natural history-type T-shirts because they feature the insects as they are in nature.  

Some T-shirts use insects to make statements about human attitudes. Even human disdain for insects is captured. For instance, one T-shirt featured a large picture of a mosquito and the statement, "Mosquitoes Suck!"

Far Side t-shirt

A number of Gary Larson's "Far Side" cartoons featuring insects have adorned T-shirts. One of my favorites depicts a number of insect faces, each labeled with a human name such as Ben or Sue, with the caption of the cartoon, "Know Your Insects."

Over the years entomology departments at various universities have produced insect motif T-shirts to advertise their departments or sell as fundraisers. At Purdue University, a T-shirt is produced each year as a Bug Bowl souvenir. One year the shirt featured a photo of a Madagascar cockroach, called Rowdy Roach, hitched to a tractor. Rowdy Roach was a contestant in the tractor-pull event featured at the cockroach races. Rowdy pulled a tractor sporting a Purdue flag.

T-shirts have become the modern version of a sandwich board for promoting ideas and products. Relative to insects a natural association is with Volkswagen's so-called beetle car. A T-shirt shows eight beetles and one yellow beetle car lined up neatly in rows and columns as in an insect collection. The T-shirt text proclaims, "Add to your bug collection."

Students of a university entomology club sold one of my favorite T-shirts with an insect image. That shirt showed a batch of human crab lice and included the slogan, "Entomology is Contagious." Now that is an insect-image T-shirt that really catches your attention!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox