Miuccia Prada once said “Fashion is instant language” and I, unfortunately, take her literally. On any given day, you may see me out in public with a gigantic picture of George Costanza holding a peeled banana plastered on the front of my shirt, or a scene from the Matrix, or Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Mads Mikkelsen from an extremely obscure viral moment like ten years ago. None of these shirts go particularly hard, they are shirts that go amusing, at best. I have so many of them.
Recently, I’ve started to wonder about the place these shirts occupy in my wardrobe, in my budget, and I guess my whole bearing. I am tall in a way that’s very very obvious to everyone, so maybe on some level I’m trying to encourage that being the second thing people notice about me — “no need to strain your neck, you can look at this large image on my chest instead.” Or perhaps it is as simple as wanting to make some sort of statement in the world. I enjoy walking around with what amounts to an inside joke, brief sartorial glimpses into specific but by no means representational areas of interest, and I choose them with care. In general, I favor a slightly oversized shirt with one large image on it, no text or brand logo if it can be helped. But there is a downside: I feel like a teenager after about ten minutes of wearing them.
To be fair, I once was a teenager and back then I would wear the odd graphic tee. What’s mortifying to me is that, if I think about it, there’s no escaping the fact that I definitely own more of these shirts now than I ever did between the ages of 12 and 18. I went to a high school where many students voluntarily wore bowties to class, which doesn’t signify the fanciness of the school so much as the pretentiousness of the students. But still, there was the general sense that endeavoring to make an effort was important, especially since so many kids, including me, came out of private schools that required uniforms. I’m not saying I dressed better back then, I just looked like a dork in a different way. Live long enough in a city populated by both business casual Mormons and tacky glam tourists, and you are driven to embrace some sort of personal style evolution.
The allure of the graphic tee is the thrill of seeing people’s reaction to whatever celebrity or funny joke or nostalgic pop culture reference is on my person. The trap, of course, is that you have to continue wearing the shirt long after the payoff in the form of a smile or maybe a chuckle has receded. What they really need to start making are graphic tees you can turn off after a few minutes. I would feel less stupid spending a bunch of money on something like that.
There’s all those quotes about style being different from fashion, one is eternal, the other is basically that one monologue about the blue sweater from The Devil Wears Prada. I don’t sense style with my beloved graphic tees though, even when I tuck them into my pants, wear some sneakers, a hat with some other, additional ironic thing on it, and try to look like any guy in Brooklyn. And yet I have a tab open directly next to this draft that’s showing me a $60 shirt with an oversized image of a cartoon I used to watch back before I could string together a complex sentence and I think to myself, “Hmmm.” I could buy a full tank of gas with that money.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.