There are a lot of different forms of pollution. Air pollution, noise pollution, water pollution. The list goes on.
And of all the environmentally unsound ways to poison the atmosphere, I’m probably most guilty of committing “t-shirt pollution.”
For most of my teenage and early twenty-something years, I contaminated people’s eyes with shirts hawking absurd memos like “I Like Your Boyfriend” and ironic meta confessions such as “Lost Girl: Dysfunctional Designs.” At the time, I thought these were the peak of coolness. I was telling people exactly what I was or how I felt without ever having to say a thing. They could just look at me and think, “Whoah! That chick likes Keith Partridge! Neato!” (Note: No one actually thought this.)
I don’t know if there’s a family photograph from 1997 to 2002 that doesn’t include me wearing a stupid message, and this frightens me. This means that every photo that I took for half a decade contained some sort of witty distraction. Before onlookers focus on the other people in the photo or me, their eyes are drawn to the stupid shirt I was wearing. Someday, if my ancestors look back at these photos, they’ll assume I was the family simpleton.
But what is it about message tees that are so inherently tied to youth?
Is it because as teenagers we’re trying to find ourselves and stupid message tees are the closest thing we have to fake a sense of self-identification? I feel like at no other period in life do we have the opportunity to wear such idiotic messages and get away with it. In your youth, everyone just accepts the idiocy. If you wear a “Be Careful or You May End up in My Book” tee in high school, the next person who passes by won’t question your literary aspirations because they’re probably wearing a tee that says “I Woke Up Like This.” They don’t expect you to ask them whether they truly rolled out of bed and put on that tee.
But if you’re 25 or older and you wear that shirt, you’re going to get stopped by family and friends. “Are you actually working on a book?” “Have you found a job yet? Did you REALLY roll out of bed and wear that shirt today?”
Typically, message tees don’t age well. They are most frequently tied to pop culture news or trends. They are a way for people to cash in on something fast and furious, like my “Free Winona” tee to commemorate Winona Ryder’s arrest for shoplifting. If I wore that shirt today, teenage Stranger Things fans would probably think I was referring to releasing Winnie from the Upside Down.
I actually remember at some point, shortly after graduating from college, my mother sat me down and talked to me about buying tees that didn’t have senseless messages on them, quietly and soberly as if we were having the “sex talk” again. We were in my childhood bedroom, which I had moved back into, and she said, “You know, you can wear T-shirts that are blank.”
This floored me. What a novel concept. Wearing a tee that didn’t have some sort of form of self-expression? What was she getting at? I dug through my drawer to discover that everything I owned had some sort of phrase that was funny for a second, but not as funny on repeat viewings. It was like a whole drawer of Sasha Baron Cohen movies. I had even kept a T-shirt commemorating the Martin Lawrence comedy Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, a movie I had never even seen! This idea of clearing history on my tees put me on a journey to reinventing my wardrobe, and thus, reinventing myself. I didn’t need to wear these tees. I needed to have their outward messages inwardly inscribed, even my “I’m a Girl and I Can Still Kick Your Butt!” tee (which today seems mildly sexist).
Soon, I started to notice message tees negatively. I realized how stupid they could make people look. And I also realized that middle-aged men in tourist destinations with white socks pulled up to their knees are the second-leading tee-shirt offenders behind teenagers.
In some ways, message tees were the first Twitter status.
In 140 characters or less (or whatever limit of text you could fit on a T-shirt), you were saying something facetious, looking for some sort of response, only with the desperation of a “Please RT!”
So why does something so meaningless and silly make me think that they are waiting in hell for me? Because they actually meet two of the seven deadly sins: pride and gluttony. Pride because of the vanity behind them (I cannot confirm or deny the validity behind my “Sex With Me: Priceless” tee), and gluttony because they’re everywhere. Whether you’re at a Target or a Hot Topic, you’re going to run into one. At my lowest point, during a particular night of insomniac reflection, I tossed and turned in bed, wondering, How many T-shirts, similar to the ones I’ve adorned, have been created in the world? Probably millions, with stupid messages that aren’t furthering anything. The money spent creating these shirts could have gone toward solving world hunger or treating diseases. Instead, everyone has the pleasure of knowing I’m a “Future Celebrity.”
And because of the ephemeral nature of the fashion statement, they will never die.
They’re like a bad cough to the fashion world that you can never get rid of. Even when a particular tee expires in its timeliness, it is sure to show up in a local Good Will for some hipster to snatch up and repurpose. We’re overrun by them (hipsters, too!). I speculate that someday these tees may even rise up to fight against us humans (they’re that powerful).