Don’t T-Shirts Mean Anything Anymore? What is this World Coming To?


The “I’m with Stupid” joke taken to the next level.

Back in 1991, when I was in the 8th grade, I remember begging my father to buy me a pair of Umbro shorts.  We were in Dick’s Sporting Goods, and my solemn father shook his head ‘no.’

“These are soccer shorts,” he said.  “Why do you want soccer shorts?  You don’t play soccer.”

“I think they’re cool,” I said, not wanting to reveal the truth (everybody’s wearing them!!!).  “Umbro is a really good brand.”

“Look at the price,” he said.  “I’m not paying that for soccer shorts when you don’t play soccer.”

I’m not sure if I promised that I would start playing soccer, or if I came up with some other brilliant argument, but he eventually relented and I became the proud owner of two pairs of Umbro shorts, one black and one blue, that I would wear to school proudly.  To me, it didn’t matter at all that they were soccer shorts.  The most important thing was that they were shorts – it wasn’t like I was asking for cleats or goalie gloves or something – and could be worn successfully in a non-soccer environment.  And, as I may have mentioned parenthetically earlier, everybody was wearing them.

“I started getting into communism a few months after I was conceived. I’m not sure if it was the work of Marx and Engels, or all the Cuban food my mom ate.”

I couldn’t help but remember that incident over this past weekend, when my girlfriend and I went to Uniqlo to pick out some summer clothes for my (now Umbro-less) wardrobe.  She went over to the t-shirt section and held up a nifty looking black and grey shirt, pressing it up to my body like she was dressing a cut-out doll.

“I can’t wear that,” I quickly said, rejecting her selection.  “It has a picture of Batman and says ‘The Dark Knight.’  I haven’t even seen ‘The Dark Knight.’”

“So?” she asked.  “It looks good on you.”

No, I insisted, I couldn’t wear the Batman shirt since I’m not that into him.  Nor could I wear the ‘Hard Day’s Night’ shirt she liked, or anything with an Andy Warhol print on it because I am decidedly opposed to artwork being on t-shirts.  In the end, I bought a yellow t-shirt with Japanese characters all over it.  Later research revealed that, in future incidents when I wear this shirt, I will be supporting some noodle restaurant in Tokyo.

“That’s fine,” I said.  “I can get behind noodles.”

Lately, I’ve been pondering the t-shirt choices of the general public.  Now I like t-shirts just as much as the next guy, girl, or mannequin, but I, unlike my stance with the Umbro shorts, have grown up believing that what’s on the front of a t-shirt matters.  I remember several instances in the last few years where I tried to ‘connect’ with my students, and ended up failing miserably:

“I love The Velvet Underground. I buy all my organic groceries there.”

“Hey!” I’d say, all excited.  “Awesome Velvet Underground shirt!  That’s a great album.”

“Huh,” the student would respond.  “What are you talking about?”

“You know,” I’d stammer, “your shirt…with the banana on it.  It’s Velvet Underground…Lou Reed…”

“Oh,” the kid would say.  “I just like the design.”

The same thing happened a bunch of times with sports jerseys, too.  “Nice, man!  I didn’t know you’re a Knicks fan!  Go Melo!”

“I hate the Knicks,” the kid would snap back.  “They suck.  I like the Heat.”

“But you have a Knicks hat and a Carmelo Anthony jersey…”

“I just like the colors.”

Where have our allegiances gone, folks?  I’m a Knicks fan, and I would never wear a Heat jersey.  Didn’t this kid know that the Knicks and the Heat hate each other?  It baffled me that this couldn’t matter.  That would be like a Crip dressing in red because it’s more his color, or Bin Laden walking around in a US flag shirt because it took attention away from his ugly beard.  Couldn’t these kids wear band and sports paraphernalia from the groups and teams they actually supported, and thus stop confusing me?

“My life sucks and is full of pain…I paid Supercuts handsomely to express this on my head.”

As steeped in modern vernacular as I am, it somehow eludes me whether or not people use the phrase ‘poser’ anymore, or if there’s a more modern equivalent.  In the ‘90s, if I showed up to school wearing skater jeans and a Rancid t-shirt, I’d likely get grilled on both the subjects of skating and punk music.  And if I failed, if I didn’t know Rancid from Ranch Dressing, I would be termed a ‘poser’ and that would be the end.  There would be no friends for my fake ass. Given that, how can someone nowadays wear a Ramones shirt, not know who the Ramones are, and not get flack about it?  I guess we don’t have any more mean teenagers out there, enforcing the sacred commandment: Thou shall only wear clothing that fits one’s tastes and overall personality.

Right before I purchased the yellow Japanese noodle shirt, my girlfriend and I came to a rack with a whole variety of David Lynch movie shirts on it.  Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, etc.  I was disgusted.  “What the hell is this?” I nearly shouted.  “Why do they have these?  They shouldn’t have these!  I love these movies!  Why are there t-shirts of them being sold at Uniqlo?”

Technically, I should’ve been excited.  If my goal was to find a shirt with something I liked on it, here it was.  My girlfriend shook her head, “Don’t buy that,” she said.  “The design is ugly.”

So that brings me to the closing question: If given the choice of a single shirt, would you rather wear an ugly shirt of something you like, or a cool shirt of something you either don’t like or are oblivious to? There is no right or wrong answer.  Unless, maybe, you’re a Crip.