Fan-designed shirts and hoodies referencing pop culture have become a thriving cottage industry. Clothing marked with a band logo or referencing a specific tour or event have been a major form of music merchandising for decades. Plenty of people specialize in recreating clothing from films or TV and selling it to the public. And sites like CafePress will now let you put your favorite pop-culture saying or visual reference on anything from flip-flops to pajamas to underwear. Given such a variety of choice, what’s your favorite piece of pop-culture apparel, whether it’s something you own or just covet?
I decided a year or so ago to stop wearing T-shirts and start trying to dress like a grown-ass woman, so now I have a dresser full of Threadless shirts sadly going to waste. But before I made that vow, my most-worn tee was a black shirt featuring a string of movie spoilers. I’m a little sheepish about how much I still enjoy that shirt, given that it’s hard to explain why—I think it largely just plays to that “Hey, I recognize that too” self-referentialism that’s one of the weakest forms of nostalgia and humor alike. Mostly, I like having people stop me so they could read it. (And often to say “I’m not just using this as an excuse to stare at your boobs, I swear” with various degrees of believability.) I always knew exactly where they were in reading the shirt, because everyone always laughed when they got to “Dude, they find the car,” most of them had to ask what the Russell Crowe spoiler was referencing, and most of them wanted to argue about whether the spoiler for The Shining was accurate. It was a great conversation-starter and movie-buff-identifier. I was irked when Threadless came out with its own, visually busier version of the same concept, which eclipsed the original in popularity by a good bit. That said, I love seeing all the weird pop-culture mash-up shirts people come up with, so I visit TeeMagnet every day to see an aggregation of daily T-shirt designs, and I still occasionally buy a particularly clever one for my boyfriend. This one—a mash-up of The Empire Strikes Back and Picasso’s “Don Quixote” design—may be my all-time favorite fan mash-up, and it makes me laugh all over again every time he wears it.
Thinking about this, it occurred to me that someone really should be attempting to archive and preserve rock ’n’ roll T-shirt art. Actually, thinking further, I’m sure someone is—probably many someones. There are otaku for everything now, right? But some are just so iconic, they deserve not to slip away with other ephemera. One of my favorite band shirts is one I’ve never owned, but always liked: a 1985 R.E.M. shirt for the Fables Of The Reconstruction tour. It shows a monkey and a parrot riding a bicycle, which isn’t really suggestive of Fables’ dreamy, murky sound, but it’s somehow the perfect fit. Maybe because, like the world of that album, it seems like it belongs to a half-forgotten era whose presence is still evident if you dig around a little. And, sure enough, it turns out the image comes from a 19th-century bicycle ad. Also, the monkey looks so happy. What’s not to like?
Do heavy-metal denim vests count? They’re not exactly one pop-culture reference or piece, but the whole idea is “Why wear a band T-shirt when you can wear 65 patches and 20 pins? Why wear one Judas Priest tee when you can wear 12 at once?” (I’m currently working on one that will be only Iron Maiden patches, or ones made for me by friends.) A metal vest establishes a sort of hierarchy in the metal scene, marking you as someone who has been to a lot of concerts, or who has at least bought a lot of patches. They also indicate that you have some rudimentary knowledge of sewing—and, if you make your own, print and design. They’re also just awesome, fitting perfectly over a hoodie and making them ideal for that late-autumn/early-spring weather. More than any piece of pop-cultural apparel, a good battle vest is an unwashed labor of love, no two alike. Like stinky snowflakes.
I have great affection for Law & Order. (The original is the best.) It’s never a bad choice for when you want to flop on the couch and kill an hour or four. The episodes have a wonderful balance of being comfortably consistent (same formula practically every time), yet well-written and well-acted enough to be entertaining in their own right. The series also has sentimental value to me, as it’s the only show my husband, who gets itchy after too long in front of the TV, can tolerate watching with me for long stretches at a time. By far, our favorite character is Lennie Briscoe, played by the dearly departed Jerry Orbach. Lennie always has the good one-liners, but also has notes of being a semi-tortured regular Joe, so he’s never hammy. We even named our dog, Briscoe, after him. But way before I was married or had a house or a dog, I spotted this Lennie shirt online and picked it up. Sadly, I won’t be wearing it for a while: It’s an American Apparel girls’-size medium, which fits an American Girls doll, not a four-month-pregnant woman. But still, I love this silly shirt, and won’t be getting rid of it anytime soon. Maybe our kid can wear it someday.
Wadded up in a trash bag at the bottom of my closet somewhere is the first punk T-shirt I ever bought. It bears the logo and likeness of The Clash (to the surprise of absolutely no one who knows me), and it’s a reproduction of a poster advertising the group’s legendary 17-show residency at Bond’s International Casino in New York in 1981. I’ve crammed it safely away not because I’m a nostalgic, sentimental milksop (even though I am), but because of its encroaching immateriality: The last time I wore it, a couple years ago, the white poly/cotton blend was so thin you could readily see my flesh through it. There’s also a large hole in the front, not to mention several Sharpie stains from when I used to draw shitty comics while wearing it for four days straight. I’m seriously worried that the next time I put it on, the final molecular layer of the thing will at last sublimate into thin air. You know, kinda like my youth.
No piece of clothing has ever come close to a messenger bag a friend of mine made for me. She needlepointed a pattern based on a sort of evolution of Mario. It starts with Super Mario Bros. and ends with a portrayal of all the different suits Mario wears in Mario 3. She made the pattern, glued it to a bag, and sent it over as a belated birthday present last year. I get more compliments on that bag than I do about most things in my life, and that includes my ability to sing “Lido Shuffle” at karaoke. Unfortunately, the only way I know how to get one is to become friends with the awesome Christina Couch, but it’s not too late. It should also be noted that our own Genevieve Koski made me an equally awesome gift as a housewarming for my New York apartment: a cross-stitch sampler that reads, “Home is where the [insert Nintendo controller] is,” surrounded by various 8-bit characters. If I could wear that as a shirt, I would wear it every day. Failing that, I might Flava Flav it up with a giant gold chain or something.
The most OG answer would be my Globochem Bowling Shirt, which I bought (monogrammed!) when Mr. Show was on the air. But truth be told, it’s a toss-up between two music-related tees. My standards for band shirts have grown more rigorous over the years. First, of course, it has to be a band I like, preferably purchased on the way out of a good concert. (I still fail to understand why people buy merch early in the evening, then have to stand through an entire show holding their gatefold double LPs under their arms.) Second, it has to be a good design. And third, it has to be a color I don’t own too much of, which rules out black and white and a host of earth-toned neutrals. I’ve broken the last rule a few times for Yo La Tengo, since I habitually buy a shirt each year at one of the shows they play at the gloriously tiny Maxwell’s in their hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey: There’s a white one with an octopus’ arms crooked in the shape of a menorah, and a black one that replicated the cover of The Who’s Maximum R&B, with a bottle of Manischewitz replacing a windmilling Pete Townshend. But my favorite Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shirt, and not just because it’s a nice forest green, is last year’s design, which cross-breeds the band’s three members with the cast of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Snoopy (atop his doghouse) with Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley’s dog, and the strip’s habitually haggard Christmas branch with an equally crooked menorah. “Happiness,” it reads, “is eight nights of Hanukkah,” and who could argue that? Only someone who also owns a shirt with a dog wearing an iPod.
I have literally hundreds of band T-shirts, gathered over the last 25 years or so. I have done big purges at various times over the years, but I have a hard time getting rid of even the ones I don’t wear anymore, since each has sentimental value. But the one that probably has the most isn’t actually for a band, it’s for the record store I worked at for 13 years: Milwaukee’s beloved Atomic Records. I actually have several designs and colors, but the one that holds the most history is from the first box of Atomic T-shirts ever printed: They were white on black, and the bomb logo was a little bit too low. It’s faded almost beyond recognition at this point, and the store sadly closed a couple of years ago. You can still buy the shirts via atomic-records.com, though, and pretend you were part of the magic of rock retail! Here’s the logo, swiped from an insecticide company, and recently, controversially, re-swiped by the head shop that took over Atomic’s storefront.
I’m not sure this falls under the category of what’s meant by “pop-culture apparel,” but it’s what the question brought to my mind: From about the time I was about 19 till I was 26 or so, I always wore a black T-shirt, a denim jacket open to the last couple of buttons, jeans, and boots. I remember how I just slipped into that wardrobe and immediately decided that it felt right, giving me a certain swagger and feeling of confidence. I also remember how mortified I was when, flipping TV channels one day, I suddenly realized that, just as a jury found that George Harrison had “unconsciously plagiarized” the melody of “He’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord,” I had unwittingly copped my look from Billy Jack. In retrospect, all I can say is, thank God I was never into hats.
There are a few shirts I’ve clung to since my 20s: my Satchel Paige tee (a PBS pledge-drive premium promoting Ken Burns’ Baseball), my Shazam-styled tee for the indie-rock band Versus, the Bullwinkle tee I received from Taco Bell as a reward for eating 30 tacos, and one or two others. And my wife has bought me a few shirts in recent years, including the Chris Ware “Onward Robots!” tee (sold to benefit the 826michigan tutoring center) and an “Orange Iguanas” tee from the old Nickelodeon show Legends Of The Hidden Temple (which our kids were briefly obsessed with several years back). But in my middle age, there’s only one T-shirt I’ve bought for myself that I wear roughly once a week, and that’s a shirt rendering Ben Linus from Lost in the style of Linus Van Pelt from Peanuts. That’s two of my biggest obsessions combined into one. (Also, if I tilt my head just right, I kind of resemble the picture.)
Only recently have I figured out how to wear clothes that actually fit me, having spent years 15-30 wearing primarily ill-fitting band T-shirts, such as the Jawbreaker 24 Hour Revenge Therapy one that was like XXL for some reason. At 36, I’m not totally off band shirts, but I’m pickier about what I buy. I didn’t want to get rid of all my shirts, so I finally did something I’d always talked about: My wife and I gathered up many of our old shirts—sadly, I’d gotten rid of a bunch I wish I had back—and sent them to this company, which specializes in converting old shirts to quilts. It’s not technically apparel anymore, but I love that some of my favorite old shirts (and a beloved Face To Face hoodie) now have new life, including that giant Jawbreaker one. (Jesus, I owned a lot of J Church, Punk Planet, and Samiam shirts. You can see the quilt in the main image for this AVQ&A, at the top of the page.)
After years of wearing nothing but band T-shirts, I’ve really tried to pare down my pop-culture wear in recent years. Consequently, I only have a few items remaining, like some sentimental band T-shirts from my past job as a music publicist. For my birthday last year, though, my brother got me an enormous hoodie from The F/V Time Bandit. Fans of The Deadliest Catch might be familiar with the boat, as well as its captains, Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand. I’m a big fan of both those dudes and the series, so this hoodie hits all the right notes with me. Plus, it’s warm and comfy, making it perfect for a cold day on the Bering Sea or slaving away in our arctic office writing witty copy.
I’ve always wanted to see how I’d look in Charlie Brown’s signature yellow shirt with the black zigzag stripe. I’m not even sure how Charles Schulz came up with the idea of putting the zigzag pattern around the bottom of Chuck’s polo shirt; all it seemed to do was emphasize how dumpy and round he was. I’m kinda shaped like Charlie Brown, so I’ve always wondered if it would be slimming, or just point out my proportional shortcomings. It’s such an iconic shirt that if you Google “Charlie Brown shirt,” you get dozens of examples of it, with the zigzag stripe everywhere from the chest to its proper place near the shirttail. Most of those are T-shirts, though; I would want to go as authentic as possible and wear it in polo form, just like ol’ Chuck wore it. And this is the only place I’ve found it in polo form—too bad the zigzag is only on the front.
Laura M. Browning
I’ve always been slightly resistant to science fiction and fantasy, so it took a while for me to jump on board the Joss Whedon bandwagon. After finally persuading me to watch Buffy a few years ago—and putting up with me while I continued to make fun of the show as we watched the first season together—my best friend surprised me last year with a necklace from Etsy that has “GRR. ARGH.“ stamped into it. I have since apologized to her for teasing her as to why anybody would watch a show about a vampire slayer named Buffy, I mean, c’mon.
One of the many benefits of being a work-at-home writer is that my daughter can buy me a T-shirt and say, “Look, Daddy, I got you something to wear to work!” I am therefore hopeful that she will be pleased someday in the distant future when she inherits several plastic totes full of my old tour shirts that I have long since rotated out of my wardrobe, but still can’t bear to part with. Of those shirts, the one I cherish above all others, even though I was just barely in the throes of puberty when I bought it and therefore haven’t been able to wear it in more than 25 years, is my Seven And The Ragged Tiger shirt from Duran Duran’s Sing Blue Silver tour, which I purchased on March 17, 1984. (Thank you, Duran Duran Wiki.) As far as shirts that are still worn on a regular basis, however, I have to give props to TeeFury.com, which, in addition to a couple of great Doctor Who shirts, offered up this very cool Breaking Bad shirt, which I tend to pull out at least once a week.