The oldest t-shirt in my collection is sixteen years my senior. The front depicts a pillow-lipped dragon crushing a concert arena under its claws, people spilling out of the doors in a mad dash for self-preservation. The words “ROLLING STONES TOUR - 1981 - LIVE IN CONCERT” scream across the back in red bubble letters, headlining a list of dates and cities where the famed rock band stopped on their tenth American tour. The hem is frayed and curling at the bottom, and a mysterious stain sits beneath the arena like a stubborn puddle, waiting to swallow the cartoon people up in yet another turn of grave misfortune. It is a gift bestowed to me by my Stones-loving mom, and one of my most prized possessions.
There exists few pieces of clothing as universal as the t-shirt; traditionally cotton, or some engineered cotton-blend, they are soft and unassuming, lacking a collar or buttons or anything that would distinguish them for uses differentiated from the everyday. They are loose-fitting and mass-produced, which, coincidentally, are the American public’s two favorite attributes. And they just happen to be our greatest asset in chronicling our individual existences.
A quick look in my drawers will provide a personal history in brief: a white scoop-neck with a female soccer ball (obvious in whole due to her eyelashes) broadcasts my nine years on an undefeated rec-league soccer team aptly named the Speedy Blues; a slew of tri-blend shirts narrativize my seven years running cross-country; a punky black number honors my first concert (Green Day, March 2013, the Allstate Arena). My best friend of two decades, whom I share a birthday with, is emblazoned across the front of an oversized Hanes, ironed on by yours truly for our twenty-second (shoutout Bianca, and her shirt adorned with my face). Most controversial is my “I Survived Hurricane Irma!” tee, gifted to me after I sat in my Orlando apartment as Irma let it rain over Central Florida.
For decades, marketing departments have looked to the t-shirt for assistance in their advertising schemes. Their comfortability and low-cost have afforded them the means to become the walking canvas for the bleakest causes: recreational bowling leagues, business outings to Six Flags, retail uniforms. No one can outrun the inevitability of this blank slate━try as one might, the tee comes for us all, and then multiplies and fills our closets with slogans and club names we’ll never wear again, but hesitate to part with, in fear of forgetting.
I like looking at other people’s shirts. I like being let in on secrets, and pretending to remember. Tell me more about Warped Tour 2001, I think as a balding guy with a tattoo of a slice of pizza slips past me in the cereal aisle of Walmart. Do you miss having hair when you headbang?
For as common as they are, there is a certain distaste toward the t-shirt that runs in certain fashionable communities. Perhaps it is because they are commonplace. Or because they are seen as lazy, or tacky, or cheap. Allow me to advocate for the devil: the t-shirt is our most valuable article of clothing. No pair of jeans can convey the fact that your neighbor went to the Kentucky Derby two years ago, or that your sister likes The Strokes. The pizza guy isn’t showing his employment through a statement ring (though, if we could shift to jewelry-forward uniforms, I might hop on board). And besides, shouldn’t the self-proclaimed fashionable be able to style anything, never mind our most versatile garment?
I’m currently typing this in a pilled, worn out Gildan tee that once advertised a band I used to love. Much like the design on the shirt, the affection I felt for that music is gone, wiped away by time and many missteps. It’s still soft, though, and I still look back on those years, and this shirt, with a guarded attachment. We’ve all cycled through different versions of ourselves to find the one we like the most, and our t-shirts recount those discarded lives, for better or for worse.
As they say: ‘tis better to have worn and washed than never to have worn at all.