(Photos: Chris Bethell)
Have you seen Sliding Doors? Either way, let me walk you through it. The film begins with a woman trying to catch a tube. She sweats and struggles, but misses the train. Or at least you think she does; the next second we see her onboard, and from then on the movie splits into two universes – one where she missed the train, another where she caught it.
The film was an unexpected success for both the box office and for chaos theory peddler, Edward Lorenz. All of a sudden you had every romantic comedy fan casting their minds back to important moments in their lives, analysing variables. Dreaming about what might have been had they worn blue to their Maths GCSE exam, or where they would be today had they never developed a pretty steady alcohol dependence over the course of three decades.
And so a generation of chaotic determinists were born. But not me. I just never bought it. To think that the pants I'm wearing have the power to affect my life in any way seems ridiculous. I'd go as far as suggesting that even if you wore something that actively made people think less of you, you'd still barely see a difference.
All this is speculation, though, isn't it? We need concrete evidence, and I've devised a way of getting it. I'm going to conduct an experiment. I will live five normal days in my life, with one simple variable: I wear a different slogan T-shirt each day, and see where each ends up leading me.
DAY ONE: "SIX PACK… COMING SOON!"
Slogan T-shirts have had two high points. First, in the 1980s, with the Katharine Hamnett-led craze for political sloganeering ("VOTE TACTICALLY", "CHOOSE LIFE", "STOP ACID RAIN"), and then again in the 2000s, when cheaper printing methods meant any old idiot could stamp some sub-cracker gag bollocks on a T-shirt and sell it to the masses. Weirdly, it's the latter category that's survived, sold on market stalls around the world to IT technicians, rugby fans and your dad.
It's this type of slogan T-shirt I'll be wearing this week, starting with one featuring what I'm sure you'll agree is a very clever little visual joke:
Pair this baby with some stonewash jeans and a pair of Dunlops, and I could be living in noughties nirvana. Sadly, though, it's 2017: the closest we're getting to the halcyon days of 2006 are those St Martin's students in shiny cargo pants and ironic wraparound shades. So to bring myself back up to speed, I head to Caffe Nero for some caffeine.
Waiting in the queue, my friend Laura eyes up my shirt and smiles. "Your shirt is a little… optimistic."
"Tell me the truth, Laura – what kind of person do you expect to be wearing this shirt?" I ask.
Laura pauses. "I think the person wearing this shirt is a bit of a joker! Somebody who's going to be a bit cheeky. It's very funny."
Walking away, I feel empowered. Maybe caption shirts are a good thing? Maybe people who wear them aren't dickheads at all, but public servants sacrificing self-respect for the sake of public happiness? I decide to take the "Six Pack" shirt where it belongs: the gym. But this cheeky chappy isn't going armed with sensible running shoes; he's going with this:
Standing on the curb, I spot my first sweaty, out-of-breath target.
"Psst!" I get the lady's attention. "How about a slice?" Her eyes wander down to the box and widen. She snaps out of her trance: "No, thank you!"
"Oi, pal," I snarl, opening the pizza box. "Come to the dark side." He frowns and waves me away.
So I press myself against the glass, cramming whole slices into my mouth. Treadmill users try to avoid eye contact and pretend they can't see me, but we both know they can. I'm giving them gold, and they're giving me nothing back. That's it: I'm taking my shirt somewhere people might appreciate it. The kind of place a slogan T-shirt featuring an unbelievably shit gag seems right at home.
Swaggering through the door, I point left, right and centre. A guy notices my shirt and giggles. I nod.
The barman eyes it up and gestures for me to pull my shirt up. "Not quite!" he shouts. I share a laugh with my three new friends. I ask them both if they mind grabbing me a beer, so I only need five to make my six. As they realise I'm not joking, the smiles disappear like sugar into coffee. We don't talk any more.
So that's where the six pack shirt gets me. At the end of the day I survey 30 people to see if my wearing the shirt makes them think more or less of me, or if it doesn't affect their perception at all. The results:
Think more of me: 21/30
Think less of me: 3/30
Think the same: 6/30
DAY TWO: "NO, I'M NOT ON F*!#KING FACEBOOK"
Waking up, I feel strange. I often start the day enveloped in the damp feeling of regret, but this was different. There's nothing worse than being surrounded by people who visibly do not want you there, so to correct that experience today I decide to pull out this tee – one I suspect will attract a few kindred spirits:
There's something special about people who self-censor their swearwords, as if anyone cares whatsoever. They're the same kind of people who'll write "cockwomble" or "twatbadger" on Twitter, and – funnily enough – the same types who'll get weirdly indignant when you ask them if they're on Facebook, like the question is an affront to their entire self-image. Fingers crossed I run into some of them!
Back in Caffe Nero I'm greeted by Laura, who looks confused by the shirt. Which is understandable, as we're friends on Facebook. But that doesn't bother me: today, Matthew, I'm no-Facebook man – the kind of guy who doesn't bother with social media, and doesn't give a damn what society thinks of it!
Before long, though, I start getting nasty looks: an older man frowns at my chest, a woman with a pram doesn't look best pleased. I no longer feel welcome; it's time to swap south-east London for someplace else.
Canvas Café: London's first "happy cafe", and a place in which customers are encouraged to take markers and scribble on the walls. This place was made for me: no, I'm not on f*!#king Facebook, thank you very much! But that doesn't mean I don't want to write some inane rubbish on someone's wall.
Still, I probably could have done this without the shirt, which isn't really getting a reaction out of anyone. I guess not having a Facebook profile isn't nearly as interesting as people without Facebook seem to think it is?
So where to? Where will my T-shirt spark some discussion? Where will people be impressed by me? Ah, of course! A student night, where members of Gen Z will be out in force, sure to have some opinions on my radical rejection of popular culture!
Following an hour of shuffling on my own to Rudimental, I feel a little lost. I don't know whether it's because I'm sober as a dog, but none of this feels right. I miss Facebook. The warm embrace of its pseudo-intellectualism; the daily reminders of bad haircuts I once had.
I'm done with this one. But before I take it off and retire for the night, the results of the "does this shirt make me more of a cunt?" survey:
Think more of me: 12/30
Think less of me: 15/30
Think the same: 3/30
DAY THREE: "IF FOUND, PLEASE RETURN TO THE PUB!"
At this point I'm beginning to accept the will of the shirt. I was sceptical initially, but it's beginning to appear that what you wear really will drive your destiny, like a Corvette off a cliff. Today, I just want to have a nice day, and if there's one shirt that will lead me there, it's this one:
Nobody can have a problem with this one. It's essentially The Beatles of caption shirts; part of the fabric of our pop culture.
Laura's reaction helps me get it. This shirt is all about surrendering pretence; about just having a bloody good time! So I'm going to oblige the shirt – I'm off into central to enjoy London.
"The shirt? T'riffc!" barks this guy as he hands me my new London cap. "Wouldn't wear it myself, but I love it."
Looking through these unbiased eyes, I start to see a different London. One of spontaneity:
One where music fills the streets:
One where kind people are happy to help you:
One where strangers become friends:
I sit, take a deep breath and reflect. I realise that maybe... maybe I don't need to return to the pub? Maybe life can say, "Hey brother, you're destined for the pub!" and you can look it straight in the eye and say, "You know what? No! I'm going to go to do what I've always wanted to do: take a selfie outside Buckingham Palace!"
Think more of me: 6/30
Think less of me: 14/30
Think the same: 10/30
DAY FOUR: "F.B.I. FEMALE BODY INSPECTOR"
I wake up jubilant. Empowered. If I can be in control of my destiny with the aid of a shirt, why not wear one that elevates it? A classic. A gag that traditionally goes down excellently with everyone the world over.
Oosh, baby. Yes.
Laura doesn't like it, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, nobody is talking to me.
So what does a Female Body Inspector do when the world won't open up to them? They open up to the world wide web.
Now it's just a case of biding my time and letting the magic happen. Maybe I'll grab a quick coffee? Then a little check of my matches.
Hours later: nothing yet. But not to worry. I'll grab a quick round of dough balls at Pizza Express and wait it out.
Paying my bill, I decide to take a leisurely walk to a bar nearby and put Tinder out of my mind. A watched pot doesn't boil, after all. But standing at the traffic lights I get my phone out to check it one last time. I'm staring at my match screen, intently, then it happens. Two men fly past on a moped, speeding down the pavement, and my phone disappears. They have it. I'm out-of-breath, chasing, but they begin to disappear into Shoreditch.
I don't know if it's divine intervention or residual dough ball grease, but I hear a crash as I'm running after the bike. I look down.
A broken phone; a broken heart.
The results are in!
Think more of me: 3/30
Think less of me: 25/30
Think the same: 2/30
DAY FIVE: "MASTURBATE I LOVE IT"
Last day – might as well just completely fuck myself over. Yesterday I'd abandoned my politics and beliefs to wear that FBI shirt, and look what it left me with: a smashed phone and a lingering sense of shame. What on earth is going to happen when I go out into the world wearing this?
Also, sidenote: who is this shirt for? Who in their right mind would wear this outside of a brief Secret Santa scenario? Just look at it: it doesn't even make sense. Try to whistle the McDonald's jingle to what it says: "I lo-ove it." It makes no fucking sense.
They're laughing at me so intensely in Caffe Nero that I can barely get through the door. I feel dirty, shameful, like I should be giving back.
I need to find somewhere to do wholesome things. Somewhere to my hands to use. To provide water where there is none.
To offer nutrition.
Things are simple here; pleasant. Until I hear it: a group of teenagers, here on visit, laughing at my shirt. It brings me back to that first day, and the thought that maybe I have a purpose with these shirts? Maybe it's my responsibility to bring laughter to the world? Only thing to do is go for a walk and see if I can brighten up a few people's days.
Walking down the street, the shirt appears to be a little divisive. I don't see many people laughing. Mind you, before long, a pair of young women stop me in my tracks.
"That shirt," says one. "I think it's fantastic – it promotes positive body image, sexual openness and – best of all – it's true. Yeah, you masturbate, we all masturbate. It's time that we all acknowledged that."
It's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard.
The pair disappear, but their words stay with me. I must share them. I must take them to the people. So I rush to the nearest music venue to share the good word.
Spotting an empty stage, I jump on and indulge them with my words.
The crowd immediately starts to dissipate, but I don't mind – I've seen the future, and it is bright and accepting, even if it makes the absolute majority of people feel uncomfortable around me.
The final results:
Think more of me: 7/30
Think less of me: 23/30
Think the same: 0/30