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May 3, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Cool t-shirt, bro

Individual expression that is uniform. Somehow.

“Sometimes… you know… when you meet the real, actual people… and you look at them… their little beady eyes and… mean…mouths… sort of sneering. I mean, I know this is what they think people like me think so I hate thinking it, but I just find myself thinking that they’re from a different fucking species, with their weird t-shirts and trousers and tabards. Why do they wear clothes with writing on them? And why are they so fucking fat?”—Hugh Abbott, The Thick of It

Despite common conception, the printed t-shirt is an extraordinarily complicated thing. It is a fashion. It is a trend. It is advertising. It communicates messages so the wearer doesn’t have to. It is a cultural signpost. It is a thing shared by many groups and subcultures, yet it is a main point of difference between them all. It measures the popularity of fads, reminds us of things forgotten, officiates memes, subverts and commodifies. The printed t-shirt is a complicated piece of cotton. This article will look at a brief history of the fashion item. Through these threads, the fibres of the mainstream, counterculture, and art will be felt and plucked. From iron-on to ironic.

The evolution of the t-shirt

The history of the t-shirt is slightly ambiguous. Consensus can be drawn that the t-shirt evolved from the undergarments that were worn beneath workers’ clothes from as early as the 1890s. During World War I, a transition from heavy wool undergarments to lighter cotton ones took place, along with a change from full-body longjohns to ‘undershirts’ and ‘undershorts’. However, the exact date the t-shirt emerged is still debatable. In America, clothing brand Champion traced its first ever shipment of ‘Michigan’-imprinted t-shirts to an Ann Arbor sports shop in 1933, making this one of the first examples of the printed t-shirt (or at least one of the first examples of a significant quantity of printed t-shirts sold at retail). The release of The Wizard of Oz in 1939 saw one of the first printed t-shirts created as promotional merchandise, while in 1942 the US Navy added the t-shirt to the official inventory of all its recruits, a move that sparked the t-shirt’s eventual defeat of the tank top as the preferred undergarment to the United States military. To add to this victory, the July 1942 cover of LIFE magazine featured a buff male sporting a gun and an ‘Air Corps Gunnery School’-printed t-shirt, one of the first portrayals of the printed t-shirt as a publicly worn piece of outerwear.

Though these anecdotes trace the first examples of the t-shirt, the garment was yet to catch on as a new fashion. It wasn’t until Marlon Brando wore a white workers’ t-shirt in the 1951 film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire that the t-shirt tore into the mainstream. In the 60s, while hippies tie-dyed their white t-shirts out the back of their Volkswagen Kombivans in a chronic haze during Woodstock, the advent of plastisol ink and the plastisol transfer would soon revolutionise the screen printing industry. These developments would crystallise the printed t-shirt’s destiny as an unprecedented fashion item among the young baby-boomer generation. This also goes lengths to explain why my grandparents have never worn a single t-shirt for as long as I’ve known them. Anyway, further fine-tuning of screen printing process with plastisols would allow images sourced from photographs to be printed, while the addition of titanium oxide made the final designs opaque instead of clear.

These innovations were used to great effect in the marketing of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws, with over 200,000 promotional t-shirts printed and distributed upon the film’s release. The success of Jaws changed the Hollywood film industry forever. The first official ‘blockbuster’ film, Jaws opened in hundreds of theatres across the country (until then films only opened in a few theatres in major cities), backed up by a huge marketing campaign that featured the printed t-shirt. The feasibility of the printed t-shirt as promotional merchandise was now realised. A year later, a run of t-shirts featuring Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett was released and millions were sold.

By the end of the 70s, the printed t-shirt was a cultural tour de force. Many designs that emerged during this period continue to sell today. Examples include The Rolling Stones’ licking tongue, I <3 NY, and the smiley face. It was also during this time that one particularly influential person’s image began to proliferate both the mainstream and counterculture. You know who I’m talking about. Based on Alberto Korda’s 1960 photograph, and stylised by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, this caricature was first popularised in 1967 when the original photo appeared in Paris Match magazine just weeks before said person was killed in Bolivia. You guessed it, you coffee-drinking Cuba Street urchin you. Che Guevara.

Oh, Che

The actual date Guevara’s likeness was first emblazoned on a t-shirt is unknown. Or at least, I couldn’t find it. Critics of Guevara’s iconoclastic indoctrination into popular culture appear to lump his t-shirt appearances with the mass manufacture of his caricature in general. Therefore, until new evidence comes to light, one can make the educated guess that Guevara’s shirted debut occurred during the initial t-shirt boom of the 1970s. (Do any of you know, perchance? I am curious.)

Much critical ink has been spilled over the highly capitalistic reproduction of Guevara’s image, a feat that, some argue, repackages, genericises and sterilises his likeness, turning it into a Western marketing cliché that dilutes his revolutionary countenance—something Guevara himself would have despised. In a way, this is true. But in another way it is the most archetypal example of the printed t-shirt as a medium of alternative expression. The forever controversial Guevara’s likeness being (ahem) hung out to dry was an early example of the printed t-shirt acting as a sounding board for countercultural values as well as mainstream fashion trends. The popularisation of Guevara’s image has kept both his personal narrative, and the narrative of Cuba, far more relevant and remembered than if it were relegated to the history books. The countercultural aspect can also be seen in the controversial nature of Guevara himself—some see him as a hero, others see him as a monster. In America, wearing a Guevara t-shirt would be even more subversive, given America’s pigheaded relations with Cuba in the past and present, a history that grants Guevara (and Cuba) the role of the noble underdog.

Of course, this has its own series of problems associated with it. Such a form of t-shirted counterculture would not be as palatable were it not for the romanticism of the Cuban revolution and aesthetic appeal of Cuba itself. One could wear a shirt bearing the flag of North Korea with the same ideology behind it, but it probably wouldn’t go down as well. Some people don’t like Che shirts because the only people who wear them nowadays are naïve ideological d-bags. I don’t know anyone who owns one of these shirts, so I can’t comment, though I once photoshopped one onto a colleague for a campaign poster. Where does that figure in counterculture? My friend Simon has a t-shirt of Che Guevara wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, which is pretty boss.

My point is, no matter what arguments or perspective one may have, the reason why these arguments and debates even exist at such a populist level in this current wintry economic climate is because of the printed t-shirt. Mainly. And while the printed t-shirt has yet to elevate another recognisable figure to such lofty iconographical heights (though it came close with Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ poster for Obama), it is doing something equally debatable with another countercultural figurehead: Banksy.

And then there was Banksy

Throughout both Auckland and Wellington an increasing number of people are sporting printed t-shirts that feature a reproduction of Banksy’s notorious street art. This curious phenomenon leaves one befuddled. Anyone who has been to Banksy’s website will note that Banksy himself does not sell official merchandise. A trip to the ‘shop’ section of the website presents one with this note:

“Products not actually included, serving suggestion only. All images are made available to download for personal amusement only, thanks.

“Banksy does not endorse or profit from the sale of greeting cards, mugs, tshirts, photo canvases etc. Banksy is not on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter or Gaydar. Banksy is not represented by any form of commercial art gallery.”

Further armchair research leads one to an online clothing store that sells Banksy t-shirts. Above the mosaic of different shirt designs the store has a note, stating: “All Banksy t shirts on this page are 100% unofficial and are not endorsed by the artist.” Interesting. If the artist doesn’t endorse it or profit from it, why would one want to spend money on it regardless? It seems absurd: an artist whose main body of work is illegal in nature and publicly available, so in order to own a copy of the work, the public buys it bootlegged from a third-party that obtained it for free and does not share the profits with the artist. Banksy’s work has always operated on a level similar to that of advertising: virally spread visual information that, due to its prominent and high profile content and positioning, the audience must experience and absorb whether they want to or not. However, instead of selling a product, it sells subversion.

So why then would you feel compelled to buy a Banksy t-shirt? Why not, say, buy his book, then if you really felt you needed to put his art somewhere, redecorate your flat with a can of spraypaint, against the behest of your flatmates? The answer: one of the biggest caveats of the printed t-shirt is other people. The main reason why one would realistically or ideologically want to wear a Banksy t-shirt is so the people who walk past you on Cuba Street (and are probably wearing Che Guevara t-shirts themselves) will know that you are the kind of person who knows and ‘supports’ Banksy. This, I feel, is symptomatic of the fiery baptism of the printed t-shirt medium in general and its subsequent integration by the baby boomers. The ‘me generation’ turned the potential of the printed t-shirt into a somewhat selfish and narcissistic idea that only serves to make people hyper-aware of the public audience who will see their t-shirt and judge them forthwith. Not to mention the invisible audience who ‘see’ their t-shirt and exist inside the wearer’s own head. As offspring unfortunate enough to have the ‘me’ generation as our parents and mentors, we are equally as doomed.

Of course, you could take the argument I made for Che Guevara and push it right back into my face with Banksy. You could claim that a significant portion of people wearing Banksy t-shirts keep his artwork in the public consciousness, thereby maintaining his reputation and notoriety and allowing all to be happy. You could do that, but you’d need to know a few things first. Unlike Banksy, both Koda and Fitzgerald (and Guevara’s daughter Aleida) endorse the proliferation of Guevara’s image—if his ideas are communicated along with his face. Banksy does not. Banksy’s face has never been revealed to the public. Banksy is alive and continuing to produce work. Che Guevara is not and does not. If Banksy never intended for the work to be on a t-shirt, isn’t one fueling the capitalist machine Banksy’s artwork is often attempting to subvert?

I am painting a bleak scene here and don’t mean to suggest all people who own Banksy t-shirts are naïve d-bags (not all of them, at least). Once again, it is an example of the effect the printed t-shirt can have, especially in the context of a contemporary artist and their interaction with the mainstream. A lot of current t-shirt producers are cool. There’s Threadless, who maintain a thriving community of artists and art critics through the user-submitted and user-voted nature of their print runs. Most of the webcomic community on the internet make their living by selling t-shirts and merchandise, along with a significant proportion of contemporary New Zealand artists. There’s also Mr Vintage here in New Zealand, who produce small runs of t-shirts that lovingly recapture aspects of New Zealand nostalgia or Kiwiana that would otherwise be forgotten. There’s also T-Shirt Hell, an American website once-famous for its ‘Worse than Hell’ clothing line: a selection of ultra-offensive t-shirts that no one with a brain would ever dare wear out in public, invisible audience or no. Choice examples included: “The Qu’ran, now in 2-ply!” or “I like my women how I like my coffee… ground up and in the freezer” or “I f*cked the Olsen twins before they were famous”. These designs are now no longer available. One wonders why.

For me, the greatest printed t-shirt-related event (aside from the Joel Cosgrove ‘I <3 My Penis’ saga) was the 2007 Big Day Out. Hard rock/emo band My Chemical Romance were on the bill, fuelling speculation that Mt Smart Stadium would be a teeming mass of black eyeliner, long fringes and androgyny. This speculation fuelled anxiety which was then expressed through the mainstream by people attending the day with perjorative t-shirts such as “I hate Emos”, “Emos should die” or “Fuck Emo” or something equally confrontational and deluded. Unfortunately for these punters, the emo wave had crashed and rolled back at the conclusion of the Taste of Chaos festival in late 2006. By the time January 2007 rolled around, there were hardly any emos left at all. They had burst from their gloomy chrysalises and become indie hipster butterflies. This left the emo-haters in a strange situation. They outwardly hated a subculture via printed t-shirts that was no longer around to be hated on. Oh how confused they must’ve been. Stripped of all purpose, the t-shirts must’ve faded and crumbled to dust, reduced of all worth and floating away like ash on a breeze. Unless they were all wearing them ironically. So there you have it. T-shirts are complicated. They are fashion and market-influenced cultural signposts that contribute to the current hyper-communicative clusterfuck we all find ourselves currently inhabiting. To understand the history and semiotics of this wearable art form and fashion is to walk around campus with an ‘I was at Disneyland 2010’ printed t-shirt on your chest. Except you’ve never been to Disneyland. You’ve never even left New Zealand. Sources:
E. Dixon, Mark, ‘A T Shirt history: From underwear to outerwear
Lacey, Marc, ‘A Revolutionary Icon, and Now, a Bikini’, New York Times
Wreksono, Asmara, ‘The Most Famous Statement T-Shirts


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Comments (5)

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  1. These are facts says:

    “Banksy’s face has never been revealed to the public.”

  2. The photo above says:

    is unconfirmed and unsubstantiated

  3. From the New Yorker: says:

    “When I arrived in London, in March, my only clue to who Banksy might be was a series of pictures, posted on the Internet in 2004, by a Jamaican photographer named Peter Dean Rickards. That year, so the story goes, Banksy flew to Kingston to work on a project. He visited the reggae singer Buju Banton, at his studio, and Rickards documented the occasion. Eventually, he became disgruntled. “Banksy swanned around Jamaica as if he owned the place,” he told the Evening Standard, to which he sold the images. “He’s too much of a pussy to protest having his picture taken once he found himself in Kingston, Jamaica—nowhere near the nice, safe media offices . . . that he’s accustomed to,” he wrote on his Web site, in a rant that accompanied the pictures, which have since been removed. Steve Lazarides confirmed to the Standard that Banksy had been in Jamaica, but said that Rickards had the wrong guy. When I contacted Rickards, he said that he wasn’t at liberty to discuss the incident.”

  4. I Need No Audience says:

    “There’s also T-Shirt Hell, an American website once-famous for its ‘Worse than Hell’ clothing line: a selection of ultra-offensive t-shirts that no one with a brain would ever dare wear out in public, invisible audience or no.”

    Um I wear Worse Than Hell shirts in public. Never had any complaints about them neither. Had complaints about some of the standard shirts from T-Shirt Hell. But never about my Worse Than Hell shirts.

    Weird huh.

  5. jonny boi says:

    hail banksy

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