T-Shirts + Me



T-shirts with Logos.

T-shirts with sayings.

T-shirts with designs on them.

How do we each choose what we put on?

I admit, I can be a t-shirt snob. It has nothing to do with sticker price or brand. It’s more about an originality factor. And I’m not gonna lie, I kinda like a person 5% more if the t-shirt they are wearing is an interesting one; a good t-shirt and good socks (but the socks are for another story.)

Actually, my first introduction to Giant Robot was from a t-shirt. Around 8 years ago, I saw a guy walking around 3rd Street promenade in Santa Monica with a Giant Robot shirt on. I went up to him and asked,

“Who is this Giant Robot?”

That led me to search out the magazine.

Even now when I wander into the store on Sawtelle, I usually rifle through the t-shirts. I am guaranteed to find a fun selection of unique art designs I know I won’t see anywhere else.

So—it’s been a long time since I bought a t-shirt at a concert but Battles were just in town. In my life, inspiration often comes from a jolt of the unfamiliar. Hearing Battles for the first time did this to me.  For anyone who isn’t familiar with their music –I would describe them as an energetic type of meditation—heavy instrumental perhaps. Their unique sound has creatively stirred me when some of my favorite tunes distract with heavy lyrics. That being said, I was pretty excited to finally see them live.

I asked my friend Zuleikha Robinson to come down with to The Mayan theatre downtown to see the show. When I got there, my excitement was heightened even more by the glowing t-shirt stand to the right of the stage.

“I have to get a Battles T-shirt!”

Well—I had 13 bucks in my pocket. Darn! Of course not having the full $25 on me turned getting that shirt into a mission.  Z lent me $11 and as I was about to start bargaining for that last buck, a kind stranger saved the day.

Thanks guy wearing the black flannel.

While on my t-shirt campaign, the opening band NISENNENMONDAI came on. NISENNENMONDAI is comprised of 3 kickass Japanese girls. Some say they are an acquired taste and when hearing a record of them I’d have to agree but seeing them live made me an instant fan. Inspired by their performance, I had the urge to run back and get a Nisennenmondai t-shirt but being cashed out I couldn’t. I’m ordering one online.

This got me thinking kind of deeply about Mr. T-shirt. How this little piece of clothing has been a big clue into my enthusiasms, artistic taste, moods, beliefs or lack of them quite specifically at times in my life.

A few memories come to mind where my impulses to express something—similar to the getting a tattoo getting reflex—were pretty apparent through a t-shirt.

Going back to my childhood, I had a very religious upbringing and clothing that glorified  “ego” or “witchcraft”—well basically anything with labels or insignia –were not allowed in my wardrobe. As early as 2nd and 3rd grade living in Fukuoka Japan, I experienced this censorship when an Alice in Wonderland t-shirt of mine mysteriously disappeared from my shirt drawer.

Then—as my teenage years began, so did the itch to be an individual and I of course found a way to rebel against this restriction.

I was 13 when I got a hold of this light blue, ill-fitting, boxy t-shirt.

The design on the front was a cartoon drawing of a depressed looking fat cow, chewing its cud. A fluffy thought bubble rose above his head with the profound statement,

“Some days you do… Some days you don’t.”

What does that even mean? It didn’t matter to me. The shirt had words on it. This was a scarce teenage victory for me. My caretakers knew they didn’t like it, but they couldn’t exactly pin what was wrong with it. So I was allowed to wear it. I wore that shirt into the ground.

Being a model in Miami circa 2000 was a blast especially since I was away from my parents and the aforementioned strict upbringing. I went out every night I could since being ‘up in da club’ in Miami just seemed like the acceptable thing to do….kidding…..actually, I’m not.

But one night—interchangeable with any other night—while boogying to some techno song, I looked down at the slew of girls dancing in VIP (I was up on a table if you were wondering,) and something creeped me out. It dawned on me that we all looked the same. Cookie cutter club girls in tiny designer dresses, all looking around, wanting to stand out but not stand out too much and I suddenly I wasn’t with it anymore.

So before my next night out I took out some scissors and went to town on my Calvin Klein black sleeping t-shirt. I showed up at Crobar, the club of the second, in cut off shorts wearing this baggie black slashed up shirt that looked as if a tiger had taken a swing at it.  I was totally thrilled by all the looks of disdain after barely being allowed into the club for not adhering to the dress code. This marked the coming close to my party days.

Fast forward to a couple years ago when a boyfriend gave me a brand new “replica” New Order t-shirt that he had picked up on Melrose. I thought it was the sweetest gesture but I just couldn’t bring myself to wear it. It said something like “New Order Tour ’82″ I felt really bad about not appreciating the gift, but the inauthenticity was something I couldn’t get past. Imagining it being created in South America or China on some automatic machine inking out unoriginality with every pound of the press kept me from wearing it. Well, I kept this sweet “poser T-shirt” hostage in my closet for a year or so before a visiting friend took it back to the east coast. She loved the way it fit her bust and shoulders and unlike me she could care less about design.

The psychological factors that were motivating me during these incidents are amusingly obvious to me in retrospect and I do wonder how I will look back on what I choose to wear now?

I will leave you with an interesting point from Clive Thompson over at Wired.com where he mentioned a statistic by Impressions, a clothing industry trade publication, stating that Americans spend around $40 billion a year on decorated apparel.

The T-shirt has the ability to mark our individuality, but as ad men know, can also be a powerful way of expressing our collective conscience.

So how do you choose what to put on?   What is your t-shirt experience?

Photos: Brent Weber


  1. 23 November 11, 9:21am

    My friend got me a purple t-shirt with a dinosaur eating cupcakes and saying NOM NOM. My boyfriend kinda-hates this shirt because he thinks my friends are enabling my love for cutesy, not-really-age-appropriate t-shirts.

    Of course I love it because a cupcake-eating dinosaur made my friend think of me. :)

    Great post!

  2. Daniel r
    23 November 11, 11:29am

    I think wearing tshirts in school that piss people off is a right of passage for many of us. That was my rebel side even though i was a straight A student.

  3. Joe
    23 November 11, 12:12pm

    Agreed. T-shirts are a modern medium for art and expression. A friend makes custom, one of a kind t-shirts and hats by hand.

  4. Michelle
    23 November 11, 1:53pm

    I couldn’t agree more on the refusal to wear t-shirts that would misrepresent who I am and what I believe. (Albeit, I had a super “cool” pacific sunwear t-shirt, that I rocked religiously in the seventh and eighth grade. It was oversized and contained a little man in the bottom right-hand corner who sagged his jeans. What this symbolized, I have no idea… But, much to my mother’s opprobrium, I loved that thing!!) ;)

  5. 23 November 11, 2:23pm

    They gotta have cool art and…a little irony…be a little funky……a little irreverent…and a little funny. Me. My Giant Robot collection is ever growing and I always get people asking where I got the shirt.

  6. catherine
    23 November 11, 2:58pm

    Thank the heavens for that man in the black flannel eh? I agree that t-shirts can define a person. This is probably why I can never wear T-shirts. What is it about the, “I know, go to my room” shirts that is so appealing? Jk.

  7. 23 November 11, 3:58pm

    I remember that T-shirt so well!!! I think I even borrowed it a few times! Ha. Yes Mei this is so you!

  8. 23 November 11, 3:59pm

    Great picks and I like the second shirt!

  9. Nina
    23 November 11, 6:07pm

    Hey, Mei! I like your post and pics. I like t-shirts too but with nothing on them. I would hate to draw attention to my flat chest.

    • Nina
      23 November 11, 6:26pm

      plus i don’t like standing out from a crowd.

  10. 23 November 11, 10:05pm

    nice article!
    i’ve always been wary of brandishing any brand name tshirt- i tear the embroidery out of my Nike gear, or just tape up on a sleeve label for most of my shirts in my youth- now i prefer more innocuous apparel, or independent designs, when i wear something on my shirt, i want it to be representative of me.
    as a comic book fanboy i read a lot into iconography and if i had my own personal logo, as concise as Batman or a color combination like Captain America, it would be all i wear, i’d have it in every color. i want to be viewed as a superhero in my own life by those that i meet. people that just ‘wear a shirt because it was cheap’ are missing out on the individuality of personal fashion

  11. 24 November 11, 12:01pm

    Really cool article, and so true! Everyone has experienced the same thing at least once. We all have a favorite tshirt. These designed pieces of clothes are alive pieces of art: tshirts are artistic representation of who we are, of what we believe in and are a cool way to share our message to the world.

  12. Airali Kiss
    24 November 11, 4:44pm

    Great Article Mei Mei! It’s rare when I come across a vintage t-shirts that fits and feels good on me, any new design that looks and feels vintage is a gem!…especially if what it represents projects and expresses a profound and powerful messages that will awaken the collective/ creative conscience.

  13. stevencop
    24 November 11, 6:35pm

    I don’t know what is more outstanding, that you even made these associations to times in your life or that you share them with us. I used to have a thing for girls with their stomachs showing and wearing tight shirts saying things like “I’m hot” but I’ve learned to avoid these women and this is a constant reminder that people really do share how they are by what they wear. I will think twice before bringing that girl home to meet the mother.

  14. Kimberly
    25 November 11, 8:03am

    “Guitar Frog” is my most memorable shirt. I found it in a 2nd hand store while spending time with very special friends, one who soon will be my husband, in Lawrence, Kansas. Every time I pass this t-shirt in my closet I think of the great times that New Years weekend.

  15. ProjectPaperClip
    30 November 11, 8:36pm

    When the corporations relinquished it’s control over the tee industry, accessibility to the financial, legal, and logistical protocal in the manufacturing of hi-quality silk-screen tees finally fell into the unrestrained hands of the DIY’ers in a big way.
    Where once real-estate on the chest cavity was reserved for corporate-related adverts, logos, and bill-board-like likenesses has now evolved into an extension of personal creative expression, no different than ornate tattoos and spritely done hairstyles – the ease of which – has been brought about by the inception of the digital age.

    It’s quite disturbing to find that when one applies this paradigm to other industries like music, film, authorship, etc., just how tightly CONTROLLED these mediums are in regards to quality, variety, and dessemination, and how LIMITED as individuals, we are in our ability to harness any notion of self-expression beyond the walls of our bedrooms and basements…of course, all prior to the liberation of the internet.

  16. 21 December 11, 1:53pm

    I noticed the NOT FOR SALE tshirt that you are wearing. A great organization that is fighting human trafficking. http://www.us.allsaints.com/not_for_sale/

    Thank you for supporting.

  17. 13 September 12, 9:53am

    Since I have received so many black T-shirts advertising various software products which either have gone kaput or which I do not want to promote, I wear the T-shirt inside-out. Out of the $40 billion on decorated apparel, I have probably received what amounts to a thousand dollars in T-shirts. All commercial, all corporate. All worn inside-out. With one exception that I remember well — one day back in 2003 on the Santa Monica Mall. Thanks for remembering.

  18. 30 May 13, 4:20pm

    I’m a tee freak.

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