An often unconscious combination of style and expression, Seán McGovern looks at the style, meaning and importance of the humble t-shirt
A staple of college style, the t-shirt is simultaneously a basic fashion item, and one of the most important pieces of statement clothing in anyone’s wardrobe. From the beginning of the 1980s, the t-shirt has evolved from its original purpose of being simply an undergarment to something of individual expression.
The t-shirt itself is now as prized for originality as a designer garment for its exclusivity – and as a result of its simplicity, the focus has shifted from what a shirt is made of to what it displays.
If it’s a niche market you’re after, it’s best to find places that deal with particular graphic designers, themes and motifs. Red Eye in Temple Bar deals specifically in t-shirts of their own design, as well as brands like Royal T with a refined penchant for retro video games. Stock varies from Jamaican themes to old TV shows and witty takes on contemporary artwork, particularly Banksy. Red Eye also deal with customers’ individual prints – simply bring designs of your own choosing.
On the high street, meanwhile, Topman is one of the best places to get genuinely interesting, witty and intriguing prints. The only downside is that its availability reduces its exclusivity.
The t-shirt serves as much as statement clothing as it does with a retrospective of pop culture of the previous decades. As the 2000s near a close, the nostalgia of the 1990s becomes something many of us can relate to, and the years that pass between decades allow certain pop culture trends to become more evident. Space Invaders, the classic arcade game from the 1980s, is now joined by the Street Fighter franchise from the 1990s as a witty retrospective of pop culture revisited in contemporary times.
Glenn Jones of Glennz.com recognises how the t-shirt is not just a fashion item but an item of informative expression – it is, essentially, the individual uniform. “Maybe en masse it can have some power, but I think usually its just an individual thing, [it] gives the wearer an opportunity to express something. I guess sometimes if the wearer is a high profile person then that message can go a long way.”
Jones feels that the t-shirt is “one of those things that will always be in fashion; everyone has different taste so t-shirts give them a way to express their personality”. The simplistic design will always last, he feels, but the imagery involved will always vary and evolve, depending on the designer and the individual wearer. “The thing about t-shirts is that anything goes. One man’s trash is another one’s treasure.”
Madonna, Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and Spike Lee are just a few famous faces who were seen wearing Obama t-shirts during the 2008 American Election, effectively making their opinions visible. The Obama “Hope” poster made its way on to t-shirts in such a flurry that any celebrity seen in either the ‘Hope’ or ‘Barack the Vote’ t-shirt was a tremendous means of endorsement for the Obama campaign. This simple garment was as an integral part of the campaign, as much as any public appearance, speech and advisor. It served not just as functional fashion, but as one of the few instances of politics and fashion combined, as well as proof that the effects of fashion should never be underestimated.
Model: David Reilly
Photographer: Colin Scally
Stylist: Seán McGovern
All featured t-shirts available from Red Eye, 4 Crow St, Temple Bar, Dublin 2.