Seven hundred weeks into self-quarantine in New York City, sometime in mid-May, I was participating in my beloved pastime of standing in a line to enter a grocery store when something big happened. A person behind me said, “My friend just started working there,” and I turned around to see her pointing a finger at my T-shirt.
The shirt was a long sleeve tee, the kind with a band at the wrists so you sort of look like a pirate when wearing it, screen printed with the phrase, “I (LONGHORN COW) NY,” a play on the iconic I (HEART) NY design by the late Milton Glaser. Stunned to be talked at, I told her I got the shirt at a University of Texas football game watch party, hosted by my school’s alumni group. We talked about UT, and as most inter-Texan conversations go, it turns out I knew people from the same small town she was from, and then it was my turn to go into the store. It was the most extravagant conversation I’d had with a stranger in months, all because of my dumb graphic T-shirt.
I continued walking around in the same shirt all weekend because that is what you do in quarantine, and two more strangers stopped me to talk about Texas. I don’t know how celebrities feel when people stop them to say, “I love you!” But I imagine it’s similar to how I felt, chatting with strangers left and right like it was February 2020. Three is a pattern, and so I drew the natural conclusion that in the pandemic, when 60 percent of our faces are covered by masks, the best way to strike up conversation with strangers (from a safe, six-foot distance) is via flashy graphic T-shirts.
T-shirts have existed for a long time, decades!, blah blah, etc., but printed shirts that we’d now recognize as “graphic tees” truly blossomed in the 1970s. A 1973 New York Times article refers to the printed T-shirt as the “medium for a message.” “This summer's shirts have gone from camp to pure corn. It's chic to wear a souvenir shirt,” reads the Times article from 47 years ago, but couldn’t the same be said today? According to GQ, graphic T-shirts just keep getting wavier; according to Vogue, graphic tees are a staple among “fashion insiders.” But what I’m concerned about is their ability to clearly communicate a message—nay, an entire vibe—to people standing at least six feet away. And at that? Graphic tees excel.
What sort of message and/or vibe depends, of course and obviously, on the graphic T-shirt being worn. My I (LONGHORN COW) NY shirt conveys that: I lived in Texas, but now I live in New York. The conversations facilitated by the shirt tend to circle those general topics. But a concert or souvenir tee would foster entirely different connections with entirely different strangers. So as you rifle through your drawers, flapping the dust and wrinkles out of forgotten printed shirts to wear during the pandemic, consider the conversations you’d like to be having while wearing the shirt. Here is the VICE guide to graphic tee and conversation pairings, as you rock printed shirts all summer long.
The Alma Mater Shirt
Let’s start off with the most anodyne of graphic tees: the alma mater T-shirt. This tells people you have a postsecondary education, most likely at the institution represented on your chest. Wearing this shirt will attract the attention of others who went there. A “pro-tip”: This tee is especially attention-grabbing if you went to a school very far away from your current location, because it’s exciting to meet other people who once lived there, but now live here. “What are the odds?” is what you’ll say while wearing this shirt.
The Ivy League Shirt, If You Didn’t Go To An Ivy League
Sometimes it’s funny to wear a shirt from say, Harvard, when really, you went to the University of Michigan. Why? Because it reminds people from Harvard that anyone can wear their silly shirts—they are plentiful at Goodwill. If you’re in a sassy mood, wearing a Harvard shirt presents the chance to tell someone, while laughing a little bit behind your mask, “Oh, this isn’t actually my shirt….I went to STATE SCHOOL.”
The Ivy League Shirt, If You Did Go To An Ivy League
I wouldn’t know about this. But, speculatively, I’d say you talk about foie gras, or the sensation of opening all the shutters in your summer home.
The Souvenir Tee
Of course this depends on where you got the shirt, but generally speaking, the more specific the location, the better. Wearing a tee that simply reads, SEATTLE, for instance, is too vague. What will that accomplish? Probably nothing more than people who’ve been to Seattle, passing you by and thinking, Nice, I also went there once, to themselves. But let’s say the souvenir shirt is from the Margaritaville Island Hotel in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, an island-themed hotel in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains. Now that’s worth saying something about, don’t you think? Someone passing you by at the park might stop and say, “I went there, too,” and bada bing, bada boom, the two of you are chatting about how weird it was that the lobby played “Margaritaville” every day at 5 pm.
The Sports Team Shirt
Just because there aren’t sports right now doesn’t mean team shirts have to go unworn; if anything, now is the perfect time to wear them, because they facilitate the next-best thing to watching sports: talking about sports. A sports shirt says, Hey, here is what I like to shout about in my leisure time. It conveys a personal interest in something. Others who share that interest—an inevitability, unless you are your team’s sole fan, in which case, your team sucks—will want to talk to you about the latest team drama. Maybe it’s an Astros shirt—lots to talk about there. Or maybe you’re still wearing your Eagle Super Bowl championship shirt? Similarly, tons to discuss. In any case, wearing a sports team shirt conjures up conversations about… sports.
The Big Dogs® Shirt
Legend of the graphic tee game, the Big Dogs repertoire is expansive, yet distinct. In terms of personality/personal facts, a Big Dogs shirt lets others know that you’re a person of taste, with a firm grasp on concepts like “irony” and “fun.” This is a great conversation starter, because the only shared trait among all Big Dog tees is the eponymous Big Dog itself. Others will immediately recognize the Big Dog, and in turn recognize you as a person who shares an affinity for chilling and/or causing a ruckus. The shirt’s slogan matters some, but not so much as the fact that you bought a Big Dogs tee in the first place. If you’d like people to readily identify you as a fellow Big Dog, and talk about the coolest stuff on earth, this is the shirt to wear.
The Humor Tee
Millennia ago, in the mid-2000s, Abercrombie had an entire section on its website dedicated to “humor tees,” which was actually just a euphemism for, “racist slogan tees.” That’s not what I’m referring to when I say humor tee. A humor tee is a shirt with a joke to tell. The joke could be a play on words, like “I’M INTO FITNESS... FITNESS WHOLE PIE IN MY MOUTH!” Perhaps it’s something more subtle involving iconography, like this option that’s printed with the Mac loading wheel above the text, “I’m thinking…” Or it may even be an old humor tee, worn ironically, like one of those “FBI: Female Body Inspector” shirts. Hilarious! Can you believe those exist? It’s funny that they do.
Humor tees can start conversations, but often they’re short-lived. A humor tee-initiated convo might go something like this:
Person 1: Haha, nice shirt. I like your shirt.
Person 2: Thanks!
If you’re missing the brief interactions of pre-pandemic, a humor tee is a good option.
The Millennium Falcon Shirt
Once you arrive, wearing this shirt, to the underground cult meeting of people who also own this shirt, you discuss group business and proceedings. I don’t personally own this shirt, so I’m not able to expound further.
The NYPD Shirt
Simple: You start a conversation with others by placing this shirt on the ground and stomping on it.
The Band/Concert Tee
There are too many bands*. Wearing one of these says, “Hey, I listen to music.” Ok????? So does everyone??????????????? The problem with band/concert tees is they beg for conversation; their threads whisper to passersby, “I’d like a meet-cute, immediately.” It’s too obvious a play, even in the pandemic.
*If you are in a band wearing your own band’s t-shirt, none of this applies. Then it’s funny and cool to wear your band shirt, and might make people who recognize you laugh and then say, “Hey, isn’t that your band dude?” A beautiful opening to a lovely conversation.
The Bikini Body Shirt
Perhaps the quintessential, GOAT graphic tee. The bikini body shirt lets others know that you’ve been to a boardwalk, and you liked it. This shirt always graciously passes the joint at the exact right moment. The bikini body tee is inviting everyone who sees it to a party, and the party is cool. The shirt facilitates not just conversations, but deep and meaningful relationships. Change into this shirt at dusk; wear it on a walk around your neighborhood or a nearby park. When someone approaches you to say, “Hey, funny shirt,” smile with your eyes (the mask), and tell them the charming story of how you got it. Ask them their name. Write down their phone number. Paint the baby’s nursery a pale yellow, pass this shirt on as the “something old” at your kid’s wedding.
Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.