My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
May 28, 2004


Some people are surprised that our 20-something generation would rather wear t-shirts and jeans to work than suits.

Not me.

You see, suits are uniforms that erase individuality, Americans have never much wanted to be just one more anonymous suit. We want others to know who we are, what what we care about, and what makes us special, and we tell the world with bumper stickers, e-mail names, web sites, and t-shirts. Especially t-shirts. From the moment James Dean appeared on screen wearing a t-shirt as proof he was an outsider, the tee has been our preferred uniform, our customizable, wearable philosophy of life.

Want our real opinion of the guys in suits? Ask a t-shirt: "If at first you don't succeed, try management." Want to know what techies think about ordinary hapless computer users? "Technology: no place for wimps." Does Bill Gates want our real opinion of Windows? "Multi-tasking: screwing up several things at once."

We use t-shirts for more complex statements of philosophy, too: "Two wrongs do not make a right. But three lefts do." I painted the immortal words of Colonel Stoopnagle on a t-shirt: "If it weren't for half the people in the world, the other half would be all of them."

With t-shirts, you can trace the history of relationships between the sexes. One '60's shirt said "A woman's place is in the House. And in the Senate," while a more radical tee said "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." (I thought that was tacky. Perhaps, in a pinch, women COULD get along without men. But why on earth would we want to?)

Men's t-shirts showed their confusion, asking: "If a man speaks in the forest and there is no woman there to hear him, is he still wrong?"

We wear t-shirts to tell people what we care about - our teams, cars, the schools we're loyal to, our pets or grandchildren (we can put photos of them on shirts). Tees tell people we'd rather be golfing, skiiing or fishing. They tell people that we love Rocky and Bullwinkle, Frodo, Miss Piggy, NASCAR, or Harry Potter.

I have a tee that says "So many books. So little time," and another saying: "Books. Cats. Life is good." My son's shirts memorialize the Church of the Sub-Genius, his favorite rock bands ("Never mind the bollocks, here's the Sex Pistols"), and Tipper Gore ("Parental advisory. Explicit lyrics").

We can show off our college education with Shakespeare shirts, or tees with fake Latin inscriptions like "Carborundum non illegitimati" (Don't let the bastards wear you down). We can show people that our real life is lived online by wearing our e-mail address or URL, or a cyber-smiley :)

We use tees to tell people that we're over the hill but still trying ("Caution:;"), or that we have no intention of growing up ("You can only be young once, but you can be immature forever.").

Sometimes our shirts quote from the immortals, like Groucho Marx ("Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read"), or Benjamin Franklin ("Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy").

Tees can even be a valuable romantic shorthand, keeping "Save the Whales" women from falling for "Nuke the Spotted Owl" men, or saving "Even on drugs Rush is right" men from doomed romances with "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease" women.

I always wonder about that great, undocumented moment in marketing, when someone must have said, "I know! Let's get people to WEAR our advertising! Better yet, let's make them buy the shirts and pay US for the privilege of doing it!" My research suggests the culprit was Walt Disney, the man who got my generation to wear Davy Crockett coonskin caps. Certainly some of the earliest souvenir tees came from Disneyland. Since then, we've been cheerfully wearing ads for resorts, museums, movies, rock music tours, as proof that we've "Been there. Done that."

If you're hiring somebody these days, you should hope your job candidates DO wear a tee to the interview. It will give you more useful information than any resume ever could.


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