On Graphic Tees

They’re kind of like ephemeral tattoos if you think about it


Fran Lebowitz once wrote, “If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?” In George Saunder’s The Brain Dead Megaphone, he invites his readers to imagine a man at a party, speaking into a megaphone. The man may not have much to say but because’s he’s on high volume, everyone can hear him. Whether the party guests want to or not, they’re forced to listen and as a result, even in spite of the hollow information being distributed, their conversations become about that which the man with a megaphone is saying.

This may be a dramatic stretch, but could it be that fashion’s equivalent of the megaphone is the influx of graphic tees now comprehensively permeating the industry across the verticals of both high and fast fashion? Maybe. But what if people do want to listen – they’re just unaware of it yet.

I have always found it comical, if not slightly strange and incredibly interesting that when I see infants wearing graphics, I actually believe they’re speaking to me. Some of the more common tees and onesies include, “I love my mommy,” or “Daddy’s girl.” Immediately, my assumption is, as the shirts suggest, the fertile baldies in question love their parents. The fact of the matter is, though, they don’t even know where their noses are. I am completely aware of this. So why is it that the graphics put me off?

Fashion is no doubt a form of expression. I’d even argue that our outfitting choices sometimes function as ephemeral tattoos that allow us to speak using our bodies. The difference is that we can effectively revoke the statement whenever we please. A graphic t-shirt that includes words or a clear sentiment should probably crystallize the makeshift, fleeting tattoo which is why I’ve been wondering how often people actually believe in the graphics they’re wearing.

It occurred to me when I first saw and really, really liked Reason’s “Aint Laurent without Yves” t-shirt that I probably couldn’t wear it. It’s incredibly witty but I love the new Saint Laurent. Then again though, as an irony enthusiast who may enjoy ruffling some feathers now and again, my wearing American Apparel’s “All blogs post the same stuff” tee last September during Fashion Week came from nowhere but my acknowledging that I’m a blogger — and if you’re going to make fun of me, I’m going to make fun of me, too.

This, of course, leaves me slightly conflicted. While it seems important to remain true to your tattoo and the story you’re using your clothing to tell, what happens when irony gets lost on your audience? Seems like social experiment (shopping) time, doesn’t it? Here are some of our favorite t-shirts.

Why Rock Destroys Your Mind by R13, available at Net-a-Porter. Hero muscle tee, available at Nasty Gal. Jaws tank, available at Forever 21 and I am a sucker for the #OOTD one, from the same place. Good Life Kanye tee, via Colette and while we’re talking pop-culture, here’s Drake with finger ‘stache by Asos. “Eternal Pizza Party” by Eleven is also available at Asos, and finally, we bring you femininity distilled using white cotton and a black, block letter type face.

Street style images via Street Pepper, Jak&Jil and Vogue.com.

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  • Sometimes graphic tees just have a cool design, whether or not it does seem to scream something else.
    Your Friend, Jess

    • (BAD) Blog About Design

      I’m in love with graphic tees. I actually just went shopping for some graphic tees yesterday! Such a perfect post.

      Check out the BAD Blog…http://design-bad.blogspot.com/

  • Jane

    I have a vintage rolling stones t-shirt and feel like a hypocrite every time I wear it. I know I couldn’t name a ‘favorite’ song from them if prompted to.

    • Leandra Medine

      Remember when Trunk Ltd was all the rage? That was a really hard time for me morally

      • Stylish Housewife

        ha…i have a madonna like a virgin trunk ltd shirt.

    • Magda McCann

      I understand the feeling: Found a Bruce Springsteen baseball tee from their 1983 tour in a thrift store that I couldn’t leave with the sweet, old thrift store ladies who priced it at $0.50. A couple of my friends were not too happy with my find as they were big into Bruce and thought I should give it up (to them). 10 years + later I still only know the Bruce songs/trivia that anyone born and raised in Jersey knows, and I still rock the tee.
      Long story, but I suppose I am saying that for me I don’t need to love the band to love the tee.

  • Citizen Jane
  • Dean Corno

    I know this is a bit off topic from the whole point of your post, but I clicked on the link from your Fashion Week post last September and I think that season was my favourite of your fashion week outfits!
    I’m also definitely down for ironic t-shirts.


  • MsK_NY

    I am a sucker for graphic tees and currently love to combine them with print skirts.

  • Holly-Bella

    I love the sound of that American Apparel tee, I’d definitely wear that. But in general, I’d rather give my opinion when someone asks me for it, rather than shoving it in their face with a garish slogan on a t-shirt. That being said, I also admire the work of people like Katherine Hamnett. So, basically, I have no idea what my stance is.


  • Wendy

    How come you couldn’t wear the reason t-shirt?
    Also I thought you made the “All blogs post the same stuff” t-shirt, I’ve never seen it at American Apparel lol.

    • c.

      it’s online

  • That’s why I only buy t-shirts from bands that I actually listen to. For other words though, it’s really hard to find one that I can identify with…Me too liked the “Ain’t Laurent Without Yves” but I came around to embrace the new Saint Laurent as well…

  • CDJ

    One of my most regrettable high school moments is when I purchased an “ANATOMY TUTOR” tee from Abercrombie and Fitch. I have never even taken an anatomy class in my life! I am still cringing.

  • I’m not a huge fan of graphic tees, mostly because I think my giant boobs get stared at enough. No point in making it even easier on guys, who can just pass it off as “Oh, I was just reading your shirt.”

    When done right, I think they work really well. And honestly, there’s never a wrong time to wear a D.A.R.E. shirt. Never.

  • Maggie

    I usually wear my plain tees, but if I find a graphic of a band I love have no problem taking it home with me. Usually don’t go for ones with random sayings on it, except for my “Me want cookies” cookie monster shirt that makes hubby smile every time I wear it.

  • Never get sick of graphic tees.


  • monkeyshines
  • Jessica

    I found a Guns N Roses concert tee on mega-sale at Urban Outfitters a few years ago and wear it probably more than I should, even though the only song I know well enough to sing along to is “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” But the Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones shirts I wear with total pride, and the D.A.R.E. shirt that re-emerged from a trip to my parents’ house is making its way into the rotation. Actually did a post on this yesterday (while wearing the GNR shirt).


  • George Saunders, heck yeah.

    As to the Q: “what happens when irony gets lost on your audience?”, I bought my kids an excellent ironic sports team-style t-shirt exclaiming “Go Lemmings” (Mixed Species, on Etsy). They wore it in high school on days when they felt particularly oppressed by the Rah Rahs. And 9 times out of 10 people would ask, “who are the Lemmings?” Duh.

  • Kirby S

    Just watched an old episode of Cougar Town where one of the men wore a Yeah Yeah Yeahs shirt just because he liked it. Jules, the main character, got angry and out-ruled “fake shirts”. What a coincidence that I read this now, huh?
    I for one love graphic tees but can never get myself to buy them, however I do own the Jaws shirt, in pink (the only day I wore it I got weird looks from almost everyone I passed).
    I guess they are just not for me, no matter how cool some of them may be.

    • Amatoria Clothing

      If you like the shirt, don’t stop wearing it just because of people’s weird looks. Own it, girl!

  • Amatoria Clothing

    Graphic Tees > Tattoos.

  • CarolinaG

    Love your blog!
    I´m posting looks from Los Angeles and accessories:


  • JOE


  • a.n.a.l.u

    I just think that mostly of people who wears those tshirts don´t know exactly what that means. I saw a 40 something lady on the street wearing an “i love porn” tshirt last week, in a country where english is not an obligation, am pretty sure she didnt notice what the hell was happening.


  • Chic Trends

    To be completely honest, I haven’t got a single vintage tee left because I’ve donated my old clothing (I usually do once a year) so I must rely on buying t-shirts that have a vintage print on them and act like it’s old. Thankfully, the “Ain’t Laurent Without Yves” “ain’t” old. I like to wear the “Celine Me Alone” when I’m having a bad day or the day before pay day.


  • Jenn

    Graphic tees are such classics!
    I think they allow you to be a little less serious

  • Hannah

    I completely get what you’re saying. When I was 10 we moved back from the U.S from England. I distinctly remember being baffled by the clothes selection upon going shopping. Every other t-shirt, and I do not exaggerate, had “I’m a BRAT”, “Rock Princess”, or “Daddy’s girl” dominating the middle. I didn’t want to wear any of that. I found it confusing as to why I would claim something that I wasn’t. I guess it was me partly being used to growing up in “brand-less” looking L.L Bean sweaters? Also, at the age of 15ish I had a tee that had the phrase “Keep you’re underwear on” with a 50’s looking chick besides it. Afraid that everyone would think I was pro-abstinence, I abstained (haha) from wearing it. My younger sister later informed me that the t-shirt was simply remarking “don’t get your knickers in a twist”. Oh, youth.

    • Leandra Medine

      You know, I think during the precise time period you’re distilling my mom bought me one that read “spoiled” in jelly letters. Retrospectively, that was highly offensive.

      • Hannah

        Hahaha!! My Dad did make some remarks about how we should use iron-on letters to spell out the word brat on one of my old L.L Bean sweaters to save some money. Jk. I do however, distinctly recall requesting to shop in the boys section without the slightest hint of shame after the occurrence. I was the stuffiest and sole 10 yr old who actually wanted to wear khaki shorts with espadrilles.

  • I used to wear my rolling stones shirt all the time when I was younger because I actually listened to them a lot but now I can barely remember the name of their songs (i swear it’s because I’m getting old and can’t store memory anymore lol). Sometimes I can’t even place their music! I feel ilke such a fraud wearing their shirts now. ALthough I really do want a jagger shirt. 😀 Old times sake?
    P.S. that #ootd shirt is awesome!


  • Jackie @ Kleiden drew

    Perhaps graphic tees are great for those whose interests cover wide spectrums…a Morrissey tee when you’re railing against injustice and feeling a bit moody; a mustache when irony reigns the day, etc. And they’re for for tattoo commitment-phobes like me who couldn’t select one painful, permanent identifier for all the Cronuts in your fair city. This is the reason I have so many pairs of shoes.

  • First thing that jumps to mind is Tisci’s Pervert tee. To those clued in on the joke, you’re just being funny and ironic. But wear it around the wrong audience and mothers will pull their children closer to them while giving you dirty looks. Graphic and message tees are wearable advertisements. They’re geared toward specific audiences and if you don’t “get it” then it’s not for you. Once I served coffee to a girl wearing a “You better redneck-cognize.” t-shirt. Honey Boo-boo fans get it, but those who don’t (me), are just confused.

  • Savannah

    Loved this, your view on graphics is quite spot on. I firmly believe irony is key here and I continue to assume my ‘audience’ senses that. If they don’t, they’re probably not the people I’d level with anyway. There’s an Italian brand (Happiness) which sells brilliant graphic tees swell, including ‘instagram addicted’ and ‘senza t-shirt sono ancora meglio 🙂 ‘, which translates to something like ‘I’m even better without this shirt on’. Love the irony of those and the Italian language makes them slightly less obvious or even tacky.
    Love from Holland XX

  • Michaela Christine

    Let’s face it, graphic tees with irony= the best graphic tees


  • I love the Kenzo and Isabel Marant graphic sweaters, don’t really like message sweaters.

    Mafalda ❤

  • Sharon

    Graphic tees are great … unless they’re derogatory or racist or sexist.
    In Australia, Cotton On produced these graphic tees for babies saying ‘The condom broke’. It got banned … understandably.


  • Kristen

    I agree with this completely! I love certain graphic tees, but I never buy it if I don’t agree with what it’s saying. Take, for example, Brandy Melville and their graphic tees? “Doin’ hoodrat things?” Not really. “Bitch don’t kill my vibe?” What vibe? And where are the bitches? Don’t believe in it, don’t buy it (I’m 16 so maybe this one only applies to teens?)

  • Ann

    Hi I love graphic tees I found also something interesting http://www.united-tshirts.com/

  • Kathy Cappa

    Love this styles http://www.kfashion.co

  • I love that you chose graphic t-shirts as a topic. I always wondered if they were not too literal…just a lazy way to say something about yourself when personal style could be eloquent enough—a great pair of jeans and a great looking blazer can say a lot about someone without saying a word. Then I thought that maybe graphic tees (and especially those with words) could be fun if they actually mean something to the person wearing them. What makes someone look like they are wearing a statement and not just “another graphic t-shirt” is how connected they are with the message emblazoned on the fabric—as in “all the bloggers post the same thing” example you shared on the article. As an immigrant and non-native English speaker living in the USA, I get so excited when I find words in English that sound just like words that I used to say in Spanish and I am fascinated by the power that graphic tees have given me to share those words—and my excitement/nostalgia for the language I left behind. The language that was part of my identity and that I find in some uncommon English terms. The words on my t-shirts speak to some people. For some others they are inevitably just another graphic tee. And that’s where you make a great point with your article: people need to believe in the graphics they are wearing.