Lately, I’ve noticed that the merchandise stands at concerts are pretty weak. Outside of an artist’s releases in vinyl/CD, there isn’t that much else on offer. I erred by not realizing that Parquet Courts had a 12” of their collaboration with Bun B at the concert I went to, but frankly, I want to show my support in a way I can’t do via Amazon. So when I saw an awesome t-shirt at the Future Islands concert I attended recently, I knew I was not going to find a better way to spend $20.
Here’s the thing: When it comes to graphic tees, I’m in recovery.
I’ll explain: I’m focusing on a very specific type of shirt. Shirts that display that you went to a place—a bookstore, restaurant, bar, etc.—are not what I’m talking about. Those are mementos of specific events that you participated in. Band tees purchased at concerts fit in this box.
In my mind, “graphic tees” are the shirts popularized in the early to mid-2000s by labels like Out of Print Clothing. They were heavy on irony, pretense, and faux nostalgia. Additionally, they were printed on very soft [Editor’s note: that’s a charitable way to say flimsy] cotton, cut slim for stick-shaped people like me, and marked by large, bright images. Bringing it all home, they were sold at places like Urban Outfitters so suburban kids like me could feel like we were entering the hip spectrum one literary reference or coffee table book at a time.
Side note: The influence of Urban Outfitters on the explosions of streetwear, vinyl records, and irony-heavy books among suburban millennials cannot be overstated. That dastardly store convinced us that we were being cool and rebellious, and I fell for it like I just got my ankles broken by Hot Sauce in an And1 mixtape.
Now, I mentioned being in recovery. I don’t buy those graphic tees anymore, but I’m still inclined to purchase a nicely-designed shirt that supports something I enjoy (see the Future Islands example above). Also, I don’t wear my shirts from that early-2000s period—though for some reason, I occasionally wear the one with John Belushi’s face on it to buy beer.
There’s a certain level of guilt that washes over me when I put them on, and not just because they don’t fit me so well anymore. No, a 26-year-old looks pretty silly wearing a black tee with the word Hamlet and a skull on the front. That said, there’s no way in hell I’m getting rid of these. Unfortunately, I have a whole drawer dedicated to the remnants of my teenage affliction. I happen to have a lot of space for clothing in my apartment, but that’s not a good excuse to be hanging onto something I don’t even wear.
I shouldn’t wear them because they reflect a different “me,” but also because it’s not cool now—if it ever was—to do something like, say, wear a Catcher in the Rye tee at Karl Marx’s grave (I’m sorry to humanity for this). The move to understated attire in neutral colors is a good thing! Your clothing shouldn’t elicit questions like “What is that?” or “Did you read Of Mice and Men?” (I did not, in large part because it had been explained to me so many times. That does not take away from the fact that this makes me the worst kind of pseudo-“intellectual” for wearing that shirt.)
But I still get a chuckle when I open the drawer and remember that I purchased a shirt with a young Christopher Wallace (Biggie, if you are in the dark on that for some reason) sitting in a lawn chair, even though in the next second, I recall in horror why I have (thankfully) only worn a “Wonder Weasel” shirt once.
In some ways, these shirts are my only way of remembering my later teenage years, so I am hesitant to part with them, even to move them from a dresser drawer to a box under the bed. That’s not to say they make me happy, but the charming embarrassment is a reminder that change can be good, and if I squint hard enough, I can see the beginning flickers of who I am today in those old shirts.
Maybe the tees are an important layer (like…a shirt?) in my life. They’re not the thing everyone necessarily sees, but I know that they’re a part of how I got to be the “me” that I am now. It’s still wholly embarrassing, given the degree to which it’s facilitated by Urban Outfitters, but that’s okay; I’ve learned from my affliction, and I’d like to think I’m better for it.
Now, I really only buy blue or gray t shirts from Everlane, and I try to buy records/books from independent shops. Ok, maybe that’s worse in some ways, but at least I’m now supporting people and places that exist to sell items I can appreciate, as opposed to frequenting a middle-man exploiting privileged teenage angst. I’m independent and confident enough to find new books, music, and clothing vendors on my own.
I’m also honest enough to admit that I once needed some help. My drawer of graphic tees helps me remember that—one set of flushed, embarrassed cheeks at a time.