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Raehana Akhter, a 22-year-old mother who worked as a quality control officer for about $2 a day, was in the Rana Plaza garment factory building that collapsed in Bangladesh. ‘It was like stepping into an elevator [shaft]. I felt this feeling in my stomach, and then everything fell.’ (AMIRUL RAJIV FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Raehana Akhter, a 22-year-old mother who worked as a quality control officer for about $2 a day, was in the Rana Plaza garment factory building that collapsed in Bangladesh. ‘It was like stepping into an elevator [shaft]. I felt this feeling in my stomach, and then everything fell.’ (AMIRUL RAJIV FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Spinning tragedy: The true cost of a T-shirt Add to ...

In 1913, the undershirt was considered something akin to lingerie and was meant to be kept out of sight. But sailors started doing their chores in the shirts, and the garments became particularly useful for men working in the close confines of a submarine and for American troops toiling in tropical climates. The shirts quickly lost their scandalous reputation; In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald became the first person to refer to them as T-shirts in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when he included the term in his debut novel, This Side of Paradise.

By the end of the Second World War, the sight of man or boy wearing a T-shirt as outwear was perfectly normal. It was Marlon Brando, however, who turned T-shirts into a fashion statement when he wore one in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire; sales jumped dramatically after the film’s release.

A decade later, tees morphed again, this time into personal statements with printed slogans and images (and frequently, the logos of popular rock bands). In the 1970s, the British punk movement led by the Sex Pistols introduced the self-consciously ripped T-shirt. The 1980s television show Miami Vice popularized T-shirts as high-fashion items when the lead characters paired them with suit jackets. And the 1990s brought “ironic” T-shirts, with quotes from television shows and odd visual puns, to popularity.

Estimates for the number of T-shirts manufactured annually around the world vary from two to four billion. Most are produced in the world’s least-developed countries.

Sources: The New York Times, Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Jockey, ZooZoo2 T-shirts.

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BANGLADESH’S MOTHER THERESA

As soon as she realized the scope of the disaster at Rana Plaza, Valerie Taylor knew her team would need to start making legs. A lot more legs.

For more than three decades, Ms. Taylor, a 69-year-old British-born physiotherapist, has been a heroine to Bangladeshis – although little known abroad, she’s often compared here to Mother Theresa – for her work with those maimed and paralyzed by the country’s uncountable factory disasters and road accidents. Ms. Taylor established the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed in 1979, the country’s only hospital specializing in spinal cord injuries and replacement limbs, and has kept it running ever since, largely through the sheer force of her own will.

CRP’s main campus is in Savar, an industrial suburb of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, making it one of the closest medical facilities when Rana Plaza collapsed in April. A CRP ambulance was dispatched to the scene. Six months later, the centre is still helping some of the most badly injured as they try to adjust to life with partial paralysis, or amputated limbs.

“Yes, it’s been trying, yes we’re overburdened. But we decided from the start that this is such a tragedy, we must do this,” the eternally optimistic Ms. Taylor says. As the number of injuries climbed, CRP’s cafeteria was converted into a hospital ward crammed with beds for the new arrivals.

“In Bangladesh, there’s always room for one more,” she explains. with a smile. Just look at the people sitting on the top of the trains when the seats are all full.”

Ms. Taylor’s cheerful personality – and her insistence that even paralysis or the amputation of a limb shouldn’t keep patients from resuming normal lives – bubbles through the sprawling CRP complex. There’s a court for wheelchair basketball, and an art room where amputee painters hold their brushes between their toes or in their teeth. There’s a mock village in one corner of the campus, where patients are moved to practice living on their own in the last few weeks before their release.

Two dozen Rana Plaza survivors have been fitted with CRP’s made-in-Bangladesh prosthetic legs since the disaster, while dozens more have received CRP’s specially designed wheelchairs, which are made from rickshaw parts, making them less expensive – and easier to repair locally – than foreign models.

Ms. Taylor prides herself on CRP’s success stories. Eighteen years before Rana Plaza, a nine-year-old girl named Parveen Akhter threw herself off the roof of a nine-storey building to escape another garment factory fire. She arrived at CRP with a mangled spine, paralyzed from the waist down.

Today, a recently married Ms. Akhter works at CRP helping new patients get adjusted, as well as sewing cushion covers for the centre’s benches and wheelchairs. “Valerie Taylor is more than a mother to us,” Ms. Akhter says. “She never got married. She made a lot of sacrifices for us. She’s incomparable.”

Mark MacKinnon

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