The t-shirt has always been the perfect canvas for speaking one's mind, whether explicitly, offensively, humorously, or passive-aggressively. Text on a t-shirt is the most direct way to tell society exactly what you're thinking. It's better at conveying attitude than hairstyles, piercings, tattoos, or crazy shoes, which only have people wondering, “Is she punk — or just haute couture?” There can be no confusion about what you mean when your chest reads, “My eyes are up here.”
As such, the t-shirt has been at the center of controversy after controversy, both personal and public. High schoolers are often the stars of these little dramas when they wear controversial shirts to school, as courts struggle with the fine line between constitutionally-protected free speech and “substantial disruption,” a metric the Supreme Court uses to determine whether or not speech in schools is permissible.
Once you're out of high school, your freedom to wear offensive t-shirts becomes fully realized. No more teachers breathing down your neck! You are now an adult, and as such can purchase and wear t-shirts that say “National Breast Awareness Month: We Stare Because We Care,” and “I Raped Rudolph.” Unfortunately for the rest of polite society, the Constitution can do very little about this one. Fortunately, wearers of offensive t-shirts are generally shooting themselves in the foot by broadcasting themselves as disgusting and classless.
And then we have the companies who draw societal outrage when they design and sell offensive t-shirts. Taylor Swift's fans have recently overrun Twitter in outrage over Bad Kids Clothing's perceived anti-Taylor t-shirt, and this is just the latest in a long line of companies being forced to pull their wares because of angry societal reaction: Abercrombie and Fitch were pressured into pulling another anti-Taylor t-shirt, Urban Outfitters has been shamed for selling anti-Semitic wares, and American Apparel drew fire for an icky tee that stated “Teenagers Do it Better.”
One tasteless dude at a music festival wearing a tee that says “Tice Nits” is one thing — we can roll our eyes and speed past him on our way to the kettle corn. But when a company knowingly produces thousands of controversial t-shirts, it feels much worse. Let's look at Urban Outfitters again, the source of so many discontinued tees: Clearly this company has displayed bad taste time and again, and the people who are directly responsible are the company's higher-ups — whoever picks the designs and gives the go-ahead. But on a more indirect level, aren't we the ones to blame? A company like Urban Outfitters is incredibly attune to public taste — they have to be, in order to make money. When thrift shopping became mainstream-cool, Urban's clothing stole the worn-in, found-this-in-the-back-of-Goodwill attitude of thrift store gems. It's not a coincidence that they sported a (controversial) shirt that said “Voting is For Old People” in 2004 — their consumers don't vote. Urban Outfitters is not so much trying to shove their agenda down our throats as they are responding to what we want — whether we can to admit it or not. They know their demographic well enough to realize that a little controversy won't decimate their sales, or drive the bulk of their customers away. If anything, the t-shirt controversies have cemented Urban Outfitter's vibe as an edgy, we-don't-care-what-your-parents-think haven for high school rebellion.
Listen, I think real controversy can be a great thing. Culture progresses through shocking the mainstream: see the Dada art movement and the Sex Pistols. If we want to keep moving forward as a society, we need the rebels, the kids who don't care what anyone else thinks, and the punks willing to write scandalous things in sharpies on their Hanes.
But what's sad for the high schoolers, the outraged “Swifties,” and the wannabe rebels is that stores like Urban Outfitters aren't actually edgy at all. Their inflammatory commentary on gender and race is never thought-provoking — it's just narrow-minded. At the end of the day, these types of stores are just venues for a bunch of mass-produced, faux-thrifted clothing that only chooses to be “Punk as Fuckk” when it helps with sales.
Image: Hard Seat Sleeper on flickr