LOS ANGELES — That staple of American wardrobes, the ever adaptable T-shirt, is morphing again in this presidential election year.

The T, selling from $20 to $80, has taken its place alongside bumper stickers, campaign buttons and a cornucopia of other paraphernalia as prime space where people literally wear their political hearts on their chests — if not their sleeves — while President Bush and Sen. John Kerry battle for the White House.

Against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, terrorism and worries about the economy, the messages on T-shirts reflect the volatility of the times. They can be blunt, profane, witty and creative.

“There seems to be a lot more passion in this election than in the past few years,” said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., near Los Angeles. “There also is a lot more reference to politics in today’s popular culture, from movies to television shows. So where they go, T-shirts follow. It’s all part of the same fabric.”

As a result, more people are buying. Sales in the T-shirt category for the first half of the year, including the online market, are up 8 percent compared with a 2.5 percent increase for the overall apparel market, according to the NPD Group, a research company in Port Washington, N.Y. That’s a reversal of last year’s trend, when T-shirt sales fell 7.3 percent to $5.6 billion. NPD doesn’t break out half-year sales figures.

T-shirts took off as political message boards in the Sixties when logos were added on to the traditional undershirts famously worn by movie rebels such as James Dean and Marlon Brando, said Kevin Jones, curator of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles. Their popularity soared during the era of the counter-culture, the Vietnam war and the presidency of Richard Nixon.

“It’s perfect throwaway fashion and a cheap and easy way to get your message out in two minutes,” Jones said.

What’s different about T-shirts this year is twofold: the do-it-yourself revolution has spawned mini online empires, and fashion-minded companies are also behind the product in their quest to reach young voters and women — especially singles.

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