Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Arts | Comedy | Internet

May 6, 2007

Irony, to a T

How we got from the earnest "Dew it with Dewey" shirt of the 1940s to the "I'm getting really good at masturbating" one of today.

Adam Rosen

Whether you choose to admit it or not, chances are a critical reserve of self-esteem rests somewhere near the middle of your T-shirt drawer. For within this darkened, hidden quarter lies dormant a secret weapon so witty, so elusively allusive, or just so damn hip it finds itself swathing your chest on only the most important occasions. It could be a big date or a long-awaited night on the town with your equally clued-in friends. Truthfully, the circumstances scarcely matter because the goal remains the same: to inspire either seething envy or admiration deep inside the modishly challenged squares around you.

Graphic by Eric Lister and Adam Rosen
To see the entire chart of the evolution of the T-shirt, chock full of examples, check it out here. (Simply click on the chart to zoom in.)

Graphic by Eric Lister and Adam Rosen

The ubiquity of the t-shirt as a commodity of modern fashion, however, has naturally given rise to a relentless competition for top style honors. Having grown weary of the enterprise, George Carlin lamented the "Coolest T-shirt Trap" in his 1997 volume of random musings, Brain Droppings:

"There are times when you take 15 minutes to pick out which shirt to wear, because you're going to a place where they'll be a bunch of guys you've never met…and you think, 'No one has ever seen a shirt like this. This will make them jealous'…then when you get there, no one cares at all. And all of the other guys turn out to be dorks who will wear any piece of shit that's handed to them. Like 'Property of Alcatraz' and 'Life is Beach.' What a letdown."

Difficult as it may be to imagine in an era of Big Johnsons and little green crocodiles, time was when a shirt was merely a sheath of cloth covering your upper torso. Peter Manning, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Northeastern who specializes in semiotics, tells Gelf that when this article of clothing first arrived in the 1950s, it was strongly associated with the industrial working class and the misfits of society. Picture Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski, S.E. Hinton's Greasers, and James Dean's Jim Stark with packs of Lucky Strikes rolled up into their short white sleeves and that infernal rock 'n' roll shrieking out of a nearby radio.

T-shirt fashion, like every other pop-culture phenomenon in American civilization, has evolved rapidly since its inception. But just how did we go from the testosterone-addled, sweat-stained solid T of Tennessee Williams' most infamously hot-blooded protagonist to the "Talk Nerdy to Me" T?

The dissonance between then and now may be curious, but it is decidedly logical. The growth of new technologies—the washer and dryer, greater textile variety and durability, more expansive manufacturing capabilities—precipitated the garment's popularity, and by the 1960s the solid (though colored) T-shirt was standard leisure apparel amongst the American middle-class. (See Manning's paper entitled Codes, Chronotypes and Everyday Objects, that he coauthored with former Michigan State University sociology department colleague Betsy Cullum-Swan.)

Before long the T-shirt became more and more utilized as a "representational sign vehicle"—a mobile reference to a city, show, trade union, etc. Most significantly, Manning points out, these shirts reflected an actual experience: "There was a connection between what you wore, what you'd done, and what someone else saw."

The innocent sloganeering and earnest wordplay of memorabilia from an earlier era would come to amuse equally both the cynical and the conventional. The earliest known example of this style in a T-shirt may be a T from New York Governor Thomas Dewey's 1948 Presidential campaign, now displayed at the Smithsonian, that implored swing voters to just "Dew it with Dewey." (The Chicago Daily Tribune did in fact dew it.)

As early as 1964, Susan Sontag recognized the vastly underappraised cultural value of all this stuff in her landmark essay, Notes on "Camp". She writes:

"So many of the objects praised by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It's not a love of the old as such. It's simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment—or arouses a necessary sympathy."

In fact, the contrived "ironic" boast—perhaps the quintessence of modern T-shirt fashion (example—"Wisconsin: Smell Our Dairy-Air!") presumably began as a parody on the campy promotional merchandise sweeping the good ol' US of A in the '50s and '60s. (This also probably explains the enduring influence on contemporary fashion wielded by the likes of Arnold Jackson and Michael Knight.)

Slowly, this evolved into the "Hard Rock Cafe: Ulaanbaatar" shirt your grandmother bought you in Miami, and the timeless "I'm With Stupid ==>" T, perhaps the common forebear of all modern-day offensive tees. While taken for granted in current times, the concept of the T-shirt as an apparatus of expression—and less a means of simple self-assertion—is likely the most critical development in the evolution of the item.

This shift hardly comes as unexpected to Brandon Gage of, a retailer that traffics in iconoclastic Ts, created both in-house and by customers. "I think it's in our nature, especially in America, to express ourselves," he tells Gelf.

"If you think about it, the act of wearing a T-shirt is a cry out for validation."—Peter Manning, Northeastern professor of sociology.
Gage has a point. Popular online retailer Threadless, whose shirt designs are 97% user-submitted, averages 700 submissions per week. (They put out six to seven new Ts within the same period.) CaféPress, in business since 1999 and probably the world's largest "print-on-demand" shirt, clothing and apparel retailer, has an index of over 70 million products, each and every one user-created. "We have something for everyone," says Marc Cowlin, PR Manager of CaféPress, "whether you're an Obama fan or you love knotting." Clearly, the people will be heard. receives over nine million unique visits to their site monthly, and since its inception in 2000, Threadless has gone from a 2- to 25-employee outfit. As globalization and media consolidation trudge on, it's hardly surprising that we've seized upon one outlet of expression that will always be ours, and with a frantic grip.

The internet epoch has democratized the design process and fueled the recent surge in retail offerings, but some current trends are still paeans to a bygone era. While their offerings may not be customized, the T-shirt inventory at Urban Outfitters, the preeminent garment barracks of the young and the affluent, is almost stylistically indistinguishable from—and sometimes identical to—that of Threadless, Busted Tees, or CaféPress. Additionally, Urban Outfitters has also positioned itself squarely in the Camp market. Consider the "distressed" LSU shirt selling on Urban Outfitters' website for $38. That's quite a premium for a cut of cotton fabric and a splash of dye; particularly when you can buy the same exact thing—utilitarian-wise—for $1.78. The store also sells Salvation Army shirts to their clientele for $34. [You can find that under "Shameless Paradox" in the accompanying chart.]

(What's surprising—or, dare I say, "ironic"—is that a corporation with 96 stores and revenues of $1.1 billion in 2005 can be such a popular clearinghouse for those in hot pursuit of singularity.)

But aside from our wish to differentiate ourselves in a rapidly homogenizing cultural sphere, what is the grand implication of it all?

In the eyes of Manning, the sociology professor, sporting these types of shirts is just as much a reflection of our own, unique insecurities as it is our own, unique individualism. "If you think about it, [wearing the shirt] is crying out for validation," he says. To prove his point, he cites the T-shirt with a musical score on it. When a fellow musician finally passes by and can recognize the notes as being those of Bach, "now you feel close within a particular bounded group of real cognoscenti." (Judging by the proliferation of "Speaker City" and "More Cowbell" shirts out there, Will Ferrell fans must make up a slightly larger bounded group of cognoscenti.)

For George Carlin, the logic is much simpler. "I realized that no matter how cool I think my T-shirt is, no one else is gonna think so, because everybody thinks they have the coolest T-shirt," he writes. His idea of an interminable rat race to hipness is surely good news for the likes of, Busted Tees, Threadless, CaféPress, and Urban Outfitters. Carlin, however, eventually found his "coolest T-shirt" to be a plain white one. Oh, the irony.

Related in Gelf: Make sure to check out Gelf's accompanying chart on the evolution of the T-shirt. If you're having trouble viewing it, just right click and save the link so you can view it offline.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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