Yesterday I walked past a man with a t-shirt that called out in big block letters, ”DON’T ASK ME 4 SHIT.” The other day I encountered a woman wearing a t-shirt on which was written a message less imperative and more charming: ”Help. I’ve kidnapped myself. Give me $1,000,000 or you’ll never see me again.”
Having grown up in New York City, I’ve spent a good deal of my time in this urban sphere reading other people’s clothing messages. I’ve come to suspect that this type of public proclamation is more than what might be perceived as an attempt to communicate a particular message.
First, let’s acknowledge the distinct types of messages. Some tees are worn to claim affiliation with a group, a practice, or an event, for example those worn on the occasion of a family reunion, or a charitable event. These indicate participant status. In these cases the wearing is a means of clan or tribal identification. This description also applies to aggressive messages: ”Explicit Lyrics: Parental Advisory,” that may be signaling membership in a particularly bellicose tribe. Certain tees self-consciously claim membership in a select group: ”Independent Woman,” or ”Game lock’d tight” (with the Nike swoosh insignia is both signaling affiliation with the corporation and an elite group of athletes).
Some t-shirts communicate imperatives as if to suggest a course correction or a exhortation to be ethical or to leave the wearer unmolested: ”Get your flu shot today,” ”Keep calm and carry on,” (and the seemingly hundred permutations of this) ”Be the change you want,” ”Bitch, don’t kill my vibe.”
Some make declarations that aim to impart a clue as to the sensibilities of the wearer, such as, ”Auto correct can go to he’ll,” ”Sarcastic comment loading; please wait.” Among my favorites of this genre is the tee with an image of Magritte’s infamous pipe with the snarky legend ”Bitch, I might be”, and one that’s an enduring crowd pleaser: ”Bitter.” (which contains the determinedly conclusive period at the end). Besides proclamations , advisories, and commands, t-shirts pose questions, and rhetorical queries: How did this happen?, or How did I get here?
Though performing different functions these messages are essentially bids for public recognition of the uniqueness of the wearer. It’s as if the person wearing the tee is saying that the edict, observation or ID badge is representative of him or her. The prevalence of these messages suggest something about living in a cityscape that by default tends to render us anonymous in the avenues of public life: shopping, travel, cultural participation. Rising above the white noise of public interaction seems more crucial to us now, which perhaps is related to more of us on the planet living in cities than not – a circumstance that has come to be in the last few years.
It is important to us to be seen, to really be seen, that is, recognized for our unique individuality, even though we cannot help but compromise this status by wearing a t-shirt that many others also wear to claim distinction. Perhaps the compromise does not invalidate the effort. Becoming invisible is akin to become insignificant and inconsequential. We assert personality through our linguistic clothing messages; the personal item as a political act of refusing to socially be lost from sight.