To a T

As we finally pack away our T-shirts for a couple of months (see you in late February, shirt-sleeve weather!), a few reflections on our favorite piece of clothing


Obama’s slam dunk of a shirt

At the Democratic National Convention in Denver this past August, I was given two missions. The first was to find a way inside Invesco Field—Denver’s giant football stadium—to hear Barack Obama address the convention. Check. The second was to find a T-shirt. A particular T-shirt. One that Spike Lee had worn on TV a few days before: It was an illustration of Obama, red, white and blue ABA basketball in hand, dunking over a cowering John McCain.

I walked up and down the Sixteenth Street Mall, downtown Denver’s pedestrian drag, and came across no shortage of T-shirts, including that politically incorrect gem, “Bros before hos”; there were even Obama action figures. But dammit if I couldn’t find a single one of the shirts I was looking for. Only after I left did I learn that the shirts were sold at a Denver shop called The 400, which sold 1,100 in three days. Unlike other pop-culture shirts, political shirts do not play at subtlety. There’s no nuanced parsing out of cool points, no gamesmanship of subtle references to bands and movies. They are clever, but not ironic. No matter how smart or funny a political T-shirt is, it signifies unambiguous, proud sponsorship, an unironic walking billboard.

The Republicans, certainly, had their own T-shirts. “Got change?” asked one. “Better hide it before Obama taxes it.” Another asserted, “McCain is my homeboy.” And the classic clenched-bicep Rosie the Riveter illustration with Sarah Palin. A few were nastier: “Hitler gave great speeches, too,” and Osama bin Laden exhorting you to “Support Barack Obama.”

But the ABA dunk, in its artfulness—McCain has his back turned to the viewer, and his expression is of a man trying to flee from an attack helicopter—seemed to capture the turning point that this election may represent—people of color ascending, a younger generation taking the place of the old. And, funny, it returns Obama explicitly to blackness, a reality that Obama downplayed through his campaign, a reality that—one can hardly remember now—African-Americans themselves once doubted.

Sometimes you can have it both ways. On the website, you can buy a Star Wars-inspired T-shirt with the line, in Star Wars-ian typeface, “Start Wars.” Above the words is a GOP elephant holding a red lightsaber in its trunk. In case you miss the point, the description says, “Our weapon is irony and we aim to use it to save the Earth before it becomes another Alderaan!” (The T-shirt, we’re told, is printed on “American-made sweat shop-free T-shirts.”)

Who says Americans are apathetic about politics? –T.R. Witcher

Could it possibly be safe to be “that guy” again?

On my way to see a Black Crowes show a few years back, I stopped to pick up a co-worker. What I saw when he stepped out his front door very nearly caused me to speed off without him. There he was, decked out in—shudder—a Black Crowes T-shirt.

Whether or not you’ve seen 1994’s college comedy PCU, you’re no doubt familiar with its most enduring line. “Don’t be that guy,” Jeremy Piven admonishes Jon Favreau after marveling, “You’re wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see?” It didn’t take long for most of the planet to take the message to heart: It’s fine to own a band T-shirt; it’s even okay to wear it out of the house; just leave it in the closet for performances by that very band.

As to why it’s been deemed a fashion faux-pas nearly as egregious as pairing dress shoes with tube socks, doing so feels decidedly unhip, simultaneously pegging the wearer as overeager and uncreative, not to mention sort of pathetic in his or her loyalty and wanton display thereof.

Think about it. Wearing that two-sizes-too-small John Cougar shirt you bought from a parking-lot bootlegger 20 years ago doesn’t mean you’re a more dedicated fan than that teenage girl next to you texting away during “Pink Houses.” All it proves is that you don’t throw your old crap away.

T-shirts up the yin-yang

Subject to even greater derision are folks who, upon entering a concert venue, beeline directly toward the merchandise table, plunk down cash for a shirt and immediately put it on. Sure, holding onto an extra garment for an hour or two is inconvenient, but it’s a small price to pay to avoid the ridicule of those around you.

Has enough time passed since Piven’s snarky statement, however, for us to consider digging out our old band shirts and donning them proudly, even for shows by, gulp, said bands? Is live music’s ultimate taboo destined to become cool again? The feeling here is, why not?—but with definite provisions.

First, it depends on the band. When you’re out seeing Rush, go right ahead. There’s no pretense of coolness at a Rush show (trust me, I’m uncool enough to have seen them six times). Doing it at an Arcade Fire show? Bad idea.

Second, at least use a little imagination. Anyone can wear a Morrissey shirt to a Morrissey show, but wearing a Smiths shirt—especially one acquired on an actual Smiths tour—earns you respect. Taking your cleverness one step further, say, wearing a Big Lebowski shirt to an Eagles concert, plays even better.

But above all, if you’re gonna go there, at least be aware you’re doing it. Mr. Black Crowes might have known exactly what he was up to when he put on that shirt, but if so, it’s doubtful anyone else knew he knew. As long as you’re okay with that, go right ahead and be that guy. –Spencer Patterson

The thin line between dorky and cool

When Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, creators of the Adult Swim cartoon The Venture Bros., created the Amazing Shirt of the Week Club—each shirt based on a plot point from the show’s third season—I was excited. Venture Bros., based on failure and the promises of a Jonny Quest-like future, may be the greatest adult cartoon since Beavis and Butt-head.

But I was hesitant, too. Rarely is the difference between dorky and cool so thin as it is with pop-culture T-shirts—there’s so much that could go wrong so easily.

The key has something to do with obscurity—flaunting your command of segments of popular culture that only the hyper-clued-in know about or remember. But it’s not as simple as, say, showing off your rare 1970s-era repress of a Dirty Harry shirt. The shirt must look cool but also have an underground timelessness.

For example, take RoboCop, the movie about a murdered cop resurrected as a crime-fighting cyborg by the evil Omni Consumer Products. T-shirts with OCP’s logo still float around these days, and the fact that the movie reference is more than 20 years old but still recognizable, combined with the shirt’s winking embrace of the fascist corporation, ensures the garment’s enduring nerd appeal.

Retro chic isn’t absolutely necessary for an entertainment shirt to be cool. When Lost premiered in 2004, fan-pressed shirts containing logos for the Dharma Initiative, a major entity in the latter episodes, flourished on the Internet. The somewhat hidden message behind the logo guarantees its cult status.

But all nerdiness isn’t created equal. Nothing’s geekier than the fan embrace of Star Wars, Star Trek, The Simpsons or The Lord of the Rings. While these are some of the most successful pop-culture franchises in history, their very popularity has diminished their obscurity-cool—they’re just too obvious.

Back to The Venture Bros.: As the season wore on, the shirt club’s popularity exploded, says Publick on his blog, The club was so popular, it ran out of stock. The show’s season finale aired August 28; the 13th and final shirt has yet to reach some of its subscribers. We’ll have to see if the shirts were popular enough to diminish their hip cred.

Of course, there will always be those who think that shirts for obscure cartoons and TV shows are lame. Good. We need a lot of those people. Without them, nothing would be obscure enough to be cool. –Aaron Thompson

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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Aaron Thompson

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