In My White Tee: Design & Discourse7 min read

I was surprised to learn just how many t-shirts I have. 46 t-shirts. I’m a grown woman. Forty. Six. I mean, alright, over a nice button up or just around the house, a t-shirt’s a great option. But 46 for a 29-year-old? That’s more than half my dresser. And I went purist on my quest. That doesn’t even include tanks…

5 college/sports—reppin’ my alma mater IU hard

5 bands/pop culture

7 plain

19 a few different causes that are dear to my heart

When you’re a kid, you live in t-shirts. You get one for every club, sports team, play or youth group you glance at. In the Great T-shirt Swap of ‘99 you passed ‘em out like trading cards to your camp buddies. Maybe in high school your great grandma made you a nostalgic t-shirt quilt that’s buried right now in your attic.

I was inspired to take my personal tee inventory (both physically and mentally) when I heard of a t-shirt exhibit currently open in London that follows the evolution of the tee. It walks you through the growing pains of the t-shirt, all the way from clothing staple to activist mouthpiece. I thought I’d see what my tops say about me to the world. I guess my collection says a lot about my unsavory college drinking years, that I adore Rocko’s Modern Life and my belief system.

But then the exhibit got me thinking, does the talking t-shirt actually have that much to say? I mean, other than who I am? Do catchy slogans or activist turn-of-phrase on a henley truly inspire thought-provocation, conversation, change? Or do they just spit another opinion out into the cosmos?

Message in the Mohair

Fashion is always speaking. It can say:

“I’m modern and edgy,” or “I’m vintage and classic.”

“I have money,” or “I’m flat broke” (I think my GoodWill treasures signify the latter, but I’m okay with that).

Overt message or not, clothes are telling your story.

Even the type of clothing dictates a message and “labels” us, to a certain degree.

A polo with embroidering on the chest says, “I work at Sears.”


A crocodile skin suit simultaneously says, “I’m stupid rich, I care about what others think, and I’m quite possibly a total tool.”

Status and inner monologue. Bonus.

Crop top, choker necklace, mom jeans and some sneaks.

Young and wild and free. We get it.

Sure it may be judgmental, but we as humans are wired to categorize. Scott Kaufman of Psychology Today puts it like this:

“The tendency to classify and categorize… is a deeply ingrained aspect of human nature.  In many cases, this is a good thing. Without this ability, we’d quickly get overwhelmed in every new encounter. Nevertheless, this fundamental skill can also be extremely damaging, especially when it comes to categorizing people.”

But the t-shirt, the ubiquitous “catch-all” of clothing started out as purely function, with little to no inherent message or categorization of its occupant.  An undershirt. White, without distinction. Something to cover your body.  The fig leaf upgraded to cotton.

Then the colors came.  A little expression and choice.

Different styles emerged. V-neck, crew cut, etc. “What looks best on my body?”

Then bands and shows and brands cashed in. “I can show people what I’m into with my t-shirt!”

All cluing the rest of the world into little differences and attributes of the one wearing it.

So it was really only a natural progression to give the clothing an actual voice.

A slogan.

A provocative saying.

A smart logo that points to an issue.

How beautiful and brilliant to create a mental dialogue without there needing to be an actual conversation between 2 individuals.

All perfectly packaged on some polyester walking down 5th Avenue. You can’t buy that sort of exposure.

Fashion Talks…and It Walks

Say you pass someone on the street with a t-shirt that says “People are People” and they’ve got your attention. They simultaneously:

Tell you a little of who they are and what they believe.

Get you thinking about your feelings on said issue.

Bring to mind current events pertaining to it.

Without a single word.

Your body is a walking billboard, advertising to the world what bells and whistles come with this model.

I was especially taken with the effect of the shocking/controversial messages of fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett.


How evoking strong verbage/feelings/opinion even more so steals one’s thoughts.

It forces you to take notice and question your preconceived notions.

It facilitates community when a fellow-fill-in-the-blank emphatically raises their hand in solidarity.

It may even the wearer a platform to speak to like minds who can handle the heat.

It’s amazing how design can literally take hostage your thoughts.

What a powerful tool.

But To What End?

I’m simultaneously excited and a little saddened by it all. While it adds to the street conversation that lives in the air, it may hinder the real one with someone who’s beliefs vary from yours.

Say you’re in a social setting with a person in said t-shirt, it might altogether take away the need for human interaction. Of the process of getting to know someone and learning where they come from and what’s happened in their life to shape the person they are, the beliefs that they hold.

Some may see a message on a shirt and instantly decide they’ll have nothing to do with that person. One can assume their opinion is strong and probably even extreme if they’re willing to offend strangers to make their point. It may even turn someone away from you, who could have, with time and trust, been open to a conversation.

A woman wearing a shirt with a picture of bare bazongas on it, while badass, is not for the faint of heart.

Social psychologist, Leon Festinger found evidence that  presenting someone with facts or statements contradictory to their own beliefs, especially when dealing with one’s identity, usually produces the opposite of change. Their brain does not want to handle the cognitive dissonance of two opposing ideas and instead doubles down.

Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Fails,

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.”

So yeah you’ve got them thinking with your t-shirt, but most likely they’re thinking their same ‘ol thoughts.

And in this selective exposure world, where we are able to like and pin and change the channel to things we already like and agree with, how is anyone supposed to change anyone’s mind?

Well we’ve got to figure it out, especially in these chaotic times. It’s the responsibility of artists to use their ability to captivate for the betterment of society. They’ve pretty well nailed it with paintings and literature and music and many other types of media. These types of art (for the most part) seem to transcend lines and make us all feel a part of the collective experience.

Our identity isn’t challenged, it’s increased.

How now, with the t-shirt? How can it raise a point and create a space for open dialogue, where irrational walls are torn down? What’s the next step in the evolution of the tee?

This girl thinks it’s gonna be some mystical combination of multiple art styles. A provocative statement over a sick graphic. An expertly crafted-phrase that is both inclusive and incendiary.

Design + Discourse.

Something magical that makes you feel at home but the furniture’s up and changed colors on ya.

Maybe then I’ll update my tee collection to something worthy of a socially aware yet humble thirty-something. Until then, I guess I’ll stick with Rocko.


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