Friday, May 27, 2005

Amateur Psychological Evaluations of Ironic T-Shirts Sold at Urban Outfitters

by Alex C. Blagg

Nobody ever said fashion was easy to understand. Especially when one considers contemporary fashion, which has come to be defined by an ever-changing and oft-confusing postmodern condition. In service of better understanding this new vogue, I have set out to deconstruct and examine the stated and implied meanings found in one of the most ubiquitous fashion items of our times: the ironic T-shirt.

Originally found in thrift stores and yard sales, the ironic T-shirt rose to popularity because of the unintentional humor produced when the shirt's original (usually dated) subject matter was juxtaposed with accepted contemporary cultural norms. For example, a "Teen Wolf" T-shirt -- which depicts a teenage werewolf and an "edgy" neon font film title -- that was earnestly produced in the 1980's for fans of the film it was inspired by, has become fashionable because of the nostalgic form of irony its now-kitschy subject matter represents. Other common ironic T-shirts include original subjects such as old concert tours, old souvenir shirts and old advertising slogan shirts.

Now that the ironic T-shirt has become a fashion trend of such immense proportions, clothing companies have actually begun producing T-shirts with intentionally dated, awkward and absurd subject matter and verbiage, in an attempt to synthesize the irony that had once occurred naturally. These "new vintage" ironic T-shirts fetch prices of more than $20 in "hip" clothing boutiques, and most prevalently, in the "Urban Outfitters" clothing franchise.

1. "Mini-Van, Mega-Fun" -- The conceit of this shirt is fairly simple and highly representative of a recurring theme found in all ironic clothing. Something - in this case, a mini van - that is generally accepted as "uncool", is presented in an uncommonly positive manner, thereby implying that the person wearing the shirt actually thinks that uncool things are cool, which, in today's cultural climate, can sometimes make that person cool. Cool is uncool and uncool is cool. Ergo, mini-vans are so uncool they have actually become cool. Also, there might be slight element of nostalgia at play here, considering the emergence of the mini-van as a popular family vehicle in the 1980's and 1990's, which are, not coincidentally, the formative years of most of the people who would wear and/or admire this shirt.

2. "Cleveland Steamer" -- On the surface, this shirt appears to depict steam rising from an industrial setting, presumably located in Cleveland, Ohio. As Cleveland's perceived image of boring Midwestern-ness would qualify this as being an ironic souvenir shirt, that might seem to be the whole explanation of this item's fashion appeal. However, to the informed T-shirt admirer, there is a much deeper, multi-layered story being told here. See, the "Cleveland Steamer" is not only a description of Cleveland's well-known industrial complex - it is also a phrase used to describe a particularly vulgar sexual act, in which one person defecates onto another. In layman's terms, it's when you poop on somebody while having sex. However, being as this crude detail is not commonly known amongst the general T-shirt wearing public, there is a hidden "inside joke" that will delight others who are aware of its meaning, and they will respect and admire the shirt's wearer for sharing this tawdry piece of humor with them.

3. "How can I be so thirsty this morning... When I drank so much last night"? -- Here is another ironic T-shirt that works simultaneously on two separate psychological levels. On one hand, there is the clever joke, playing on the obvious irony that, the more one drinks alcohol, the more they will be dehydrated and thirsty the following morning. That is ironic in and of itself. However, another layer of irony can be found in the fact that, traditionally, binge drinking is not a socially desirable human behavior. Therefore, the person wearing this shirt is not only amusing people with the superficial irony of its statement, but also flippantly saying to the world, "A-ha! I scoff at the dangers of ritualistic alcohol abuse, instead choosing to openly admit to the fact that I love to party!" This shirt rarely manages to amuse people who aren't alcoholics themselves.

4. "Thumb Wrestling Champion, 1984" -- A tour-de-force of ironic clothing, this T-shirt is actually operating on three distinct levels of irony. First, there is the nostalgic irony evoked by the reference to thumb wrestling, a popular activity of most everyone's childhood. Seeing this image will immediately bring one back to the more carefree days of their youth, which, for whatever reason, produces an immediate sensation of overwhelming amusement. Secondly, there is the previously-mentioned "uncool is cool" phenomenon at work here, as most people would generally concede that adults should not still be engaging in trivialities like thumb wresting, much less wearing a T-shirt announcing their domination of the activity, which is somewhat contradictory to the first layer of irony, which begets yet another smaller irony in itself. Finally, this item includes a direct reference to the 1980's, which is arguably the marquee decade of all things ironic. Pretty much anything involving the 1980's can be slapped on a shirt and sold at ridiculous prices.

5. "Ladies Wanted, Inquire Within" -- This shirt - a "clever" spin on the "Help Wanted: Inquire Within" storefront signs found all over the country - combines cheeky humor with unsubtle sexual suggestion to produce a sentiment that is ironic mostly in its brazenness. One might also argue that using the term "Ladies" to describe a desired female sexual partner is also ironic, but more often than not the person wearing this shirt is unaware of this irony, thereby rendering it moot. Be advised - the person wearing this shirt might also be wearing "Lucky" brand jeans that say "Lucky You" on the inside of the zipper, which is also an ironic statement, especially if it is the last thing you see prior to said T-shirt wearer date raping you, which is entirely possible considering the type of person who would choose to wear such a retarded shirt.

In summation, irony sucks so badly that pretty soon, ironic shirts will actually become ironic.

(All T-shirts used in this post are currently available for sale at Urban Outfitters. Seriously.)

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