Sunday, October 1, 2023

Why Are People Walking Billboards?

A friend sent me a note recently, asking if I knew why people now wear articles of clothing that display various messages in large letters. While visiting the mall, she saw people proclaiming the following important statements in big print on their garments: “Italians make better lovers,” “She who must be obeyed,” and, “It’s weird being the same age as old people.”

First, I’m not sure if this is a new phenomenon. I think people have been wearing large messages on their clothes for at least a couple of decades now. However, when I was a kid in the 1970s, it definitely was not common. I remember in high school I bought a tee shirt that had the word “Adidas” displayed across the chest. My dad took one look and said, “Is that company paying you to be a walking billboard?”
In my dad’s mind, there was no reason to promote a particular brand name unless that company compensated me. The idea of putting any words on a garment made no sense to him. But in my mind, I wanted to associate myself with a top-of-the-line sporting goods manufacturer. The fact that I was also wearing beat-up old Converse All-Star canvas sneakers – since I couldn’t afford Adidas’ expensive leather basketball shoes – sent kind of a mixed message. If they were going to compensate me for being a walking billboard, I would’ve preferred new basketball shoes instead of a check.

Going back a half-century or so, words were on clothing for two reasons: one, to promote the brand that made the clothes, a marketing ploy used by firms such as Adidas, Levi Strauss, and Nike; and two, to declare the wearer’s favorite team or school. Back when I was young, plenty of people had shirts and jackets adorned with the words “Red Sox,” “Yankees,” or “Mets.” While others proudly proclaimed “UConn,” “Yale,” or my alma mater, “Eddie Jablonsky’s School of Automotive Maintenance and Ball Room Dancing.” 

And as we all know, the star of the greatest film of all time, John Belushi in “Animal House,” wore a sweatshirt inscribed with the most important thing in his life: “COLLEGE.”

I think what my friend was referring to is the fact that these writings no longer just declare the name of the clothing brand or the person’s favorite team or school. Now, the words on clothing send a specific message, and oftentimes those messages are either political or sarcastic or offensive (and quite often all three).

A few years ago, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attended the Met Gala wearing a gown with the words “Tax the Rich” spelled out in big red letters. It was kind of an awkward situation, since only gazillionaires could afford to attend that ritzy party. (Average admission price: $35,000 per person, or the awesome discounted price of $300,000 per table.)
If you do a Google search for the phrase “snarky tee shirts,” you’ll see dozens of clever choices, amid the hundreds and hundreds of really offensive shirts that I can’t even begin to hint at in a family newspaper. 
Here are some tee shirt messages I thought were somewhat amusing:
  • My favorite childhood memory is my back not hurting

  • I LOVE MY WIFE. (Yes, she bought me this shirt.)

  • I BROKE UP WITH MY GYM. We just weren’t working out.

  • I HAD MY PATIENCE TESTED. I’m negative.
Even though they’re somewhat clever and not offensive, I still wouldn’t wear one in public. Like my friend, I just don’t get it. I have no interest in being a walking political lawn sign or an internet meme.

Maybe I’ll get a custom-made garment that declares in large letters: “NO MESSAGE. It’s just a shirt.” 

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