Register Sunday | June 17 | 2018

The Clothes Make the Man

Are clever T-shirts ruining our society?

Before we even make eye contact, I realize I hate the man walking down the grocery aisle toward me. He's never kicked my dog, I've never slept with him-in fact, we've never even met. But in bold white letters, the word "VEGAN" is printed across his black T-shirt. Staring at his malnourished frame as it hovers over the seasonal produce, I clutch my package of extra-fatty bacon and feel as though we've had an argument.

I've been having this reaction more and more frequently as the streets of Toronto turn into a silent battleground of the slogan. Cheap pastel Ts are usurping the button, the blog and the bumper sticker as the vehicle du jour for pop-cultural identification. And it's not just here. Every city in North America has been inundated with these bold, reductive catchphrases. They are the passive-aggressive accessories of a mute generation.

Once upon a time, North Americans liked their T-shirts as white as the stars who wore them-with James Dean and Marlon Brando showing them how it was done. Then came À bout de souffle, the 1960 Jean-Luc Godard film in which Jean Seberg wore a yellow T-shirt. The tight, bright number advertised the New York Herald Tribune, a newspaper popular with the self-proclaimed intelligentsia. After that, T-shirts became a phenomenon: half fashion statement, half billboard. As with many trends, celebrity spawned the slogan T, but it was business that capitalized on it. The wonderful world of marketing at Walt Disney first realized the potential of made-to-order Ts after plastisol, a stretchable ink, was invented. They began to "flock" letters and designs onto cheap souvenir shirts, giving the world the Mickey Mouse logo that decades later would morph into the friendly rodent flipping the bird.

T-shirts didn't stay quiet for long. In 1979, DJ Steve Dahl and baseball promoter Mike Veeck organized the world's largest "anti-disco rally" at Chicago's Comiskey Park. The event ended in a riot, but it spawned the "Disco Sucks" T, allowing marginalized rock 'n' roll fans to band together in their shared hatred of Donna Summer.

The 1980s were a dark time for the slogan T-shirt (and fashion in general), as pithy phrases were replaced by small polo horses and alligators. It took Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain to resurrect it: he was pictured on the cover of a 1992 issue of Rolling Stone wearing a T that proclaimed "Corporate magazines still suck." The shirt ushered in a fashion revolution that had nothing to do with grunge. Personalized Ts became the star vehicle of cultural disillusionment and were soon the ubiquitous ornament of the middle class-a way to assert one's individuality just by getting dressed. The shirts allowed people like Mr. Cobain to protest the Man while still cashing their royalty cheques.

Cobain couldn't take the irony. Faced with a world where teens wore his words on their chests, he preferred to blow his brains out. But even in death, the singer searched for comfort in a slogan. His suicide note included Neil Young's declaration that it's "better to burn out than to fade away"-but he could have just scrawled it across his chest. In the public domain, a statement's meaning, if not lost altogether, is open to subjective reinterpretation by every eye that passes over it. Words take on strange and wonderful powers when they are written down. Context and intonation disappear, and the words sit in a void to be construed according to the mood, intelligence and socio-political leanings of the reader.

A colleague of mine was walking with his wife on the streets of a US city recently when they were approached by a person who objected to the "Free Martha" T-shirt my friend's wife was wearing. The accoster asked how they could support a woman who had recently been convicted of obstructing justice. My friends were bemused that anyone would take a fashion statement so seriously. "It's just a T-shirt," my colleague explained. But where does style stop and opinion begin? How outrageous can a statement be and still be passed off as an accessory? When does the wearer have to start taking responsibility for the message it sends?

Lynn Crosbie, writing in the Globe and Mail, put forward the suggestion that everyone be required to wear T-shirts that reveal one's innermost thoughts. Instead of slogans, the Ts would declare such truths as "I put roofies in your drink" or "My penis fits in a keyhole."

But even if such fashion were mandated by law, the phrases, though true, would soon lose their impact. Instead of forcing people to wear their thoughts on their chests, I propose making people speak their minds the old-fashioned way. Our society has fragmented into a collection of political, cultural and religious compartments that leave conversations predictable and bland. The T-shirt has replaced debate with one-way banter-T-shouting, if you will-that prevents an equal exchange and shies away from direct engagement. Sadly, a large part of our cultural discourse is being carried out on $30 American Apparel cotton V-necks. If you look better in button-downs, you may never be heard at all.

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