FashionLiving the Fuck Out LoudPolitics Of Style

to t-shirt, or not to t-shirt?

July 12, 2019

About five years ago, I vowed not to wear t-shirts. It was a silly vow, but it felt monumental to me: Nothing is louder than a t-shirt. I didn’t want to be a walking billboard for a company or an idea that I didn’t believe in, and the decision felt like the reacquisition of my body. I spent decades wearing brand logos and words that were not mine, and I thought to myself, “If I am to be a clean canvas, something un-bought, maybe it should start with my fashion.” Even though visuals aren’t complete politics, it felt like a commitment to what I believe, who I was, and perhaps, more importantly, who I wanted to be.

My immense respect for the t-shirt started during my time as an editor at Philadelphia Printworks, where t-shirts weren’t just branding opportunities, but political broadcasts. Some reinterpreted Black icons like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin as college university t-shirts; others read pro-black statements like “Black Power” or re-appropriated Black Panther images of free lunches and the black panther. It was the love of the t-shirt, not the hate or some type of fashion-driven critique of them, that made me want to abandon its daily place in my life, in my closet, and on my body.

By Camila Falquez at AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2017

In American culture, the t-shirt is a staple. The white t-shirt with blue jeans makes one think of an blue-collar American hero, someone without many trappings and a pure heart. Meanwhile, the Black t-shirt with blue jeans, perhaps paired with sunglasses, is the image of a bad boy; someone seductive and rebellious, without fear of consequences — not even of death, which makes him seem both brave and enthralling. We communicate with what we put on our bodies exactly who we think we should be. Dennis Nothdruft said of the garment, “[The t-shirt] is a really basic way of telling the world who and what you are.”

By Mark Elzey at AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2017.

In a moment when the new retail is influenced by digital culture, and everyone is attempting to exchange their social status for money — and brands are willing to pay people to wear their products — the blankness of wearing nothing feels loud. And if it is not politically radical, it feels socially and culturally so.

It’s not just big brands. Some people produce t-shirts as a way to commodify their digital presence or their success. When I released my children’s book, LARGE FEARS and knew it would do well, I immediately thought to make pink t-shirts that read “BLACK BOYS LOVE PINK” because I knew it was the easiest way to produce something that could make an individual — specifically people prone to filling the position of fanboy or excited geek (I say this warmly — I am one) — feel part of a world they would otherwise have to leave once their immediate engagement with it has ended. This psychology is applicable to many mediums — films (all the Star Wars t-shirts), music (the very popular band t-shirt), and now even social media (the emoji t-shirt). There are people with such an engaging brand that they can create slogans or design t-shirts with hashtags on them that remind one of their social media account — and pull in a profit. Nobody has reinvented the t-shirt, and, honestly, it doesn’t need it, functioning as it has for decades now. It is sometimes a political statement, and it’s most often a branding opportunity. 

Photo by Mark Elzey at AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2019.

This last Pride weekend in New York City was full of brand opportunities and and full of t-shirts. I was only excited about the event and products made by an organization called Native Son, a platform for Black gay professional men, and a photoshoot they were having to celebrate both Black gay men’s history and our future. We were all told to wear t-shirts from the capsule collection. I broke my rule and chose an all Black t-shirt that had KING on it with white lettering. Once placed on my body, I remembered the minimalist effortless-ness and the beautiful, understated power of wearing a t-shirt that expresses exactly what you want the world to know. At least for a moment, you are simple and beautiful. You feel aligned and proud. You want everyone to read it and digest exactly who you are. I looked around the space filled with other Black gay men radiating the same energy underneath June’s sun. It reminded me that my diet from wearing t-shirts was not simply about not wearing t-shirts or rebelling against a garment, but another way of ensuring I am always being intentional.

By Mark Elzey at AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2017.