Attack of the killer Ts

Are T-shirts the eternal hipster uniform

"Ironic T-shirts — where the lameness of my T-shirt is in inverse proportion to my hipness!" comedian Patton Oswalt shouted at a recent sold-out Noise Pop show, pointing out in particular one special Salinas lass in a skull-and-hearts T. "I'm so cool I can defeat my own T-shirt!"

You know T-shirts have arrived — and by now may even be taking the last BART train to Fremont — when they've crept into the routines of comics desperate to warm up a 6 p.m. crowd. Is there anything more appropriate for every occasion, barring the most obscenely uptight cotillion? Be it basic formal and fiendish black, all-purpose "what are you rebelling against?" white, or any hue in the spectrum between. Be it worn on the chest, sleeve, or belly. Be it decorated with words and pictures so promo, pomo, and porno, with bands and teams, mugs and slugs of the sheer truth, alliances and affiliations, affirmations or fighting words — there's no place like the homely T-shirt. Provided you have the right cut, cult, or message, you can throw it on and rock that bod with just jeans and trendoid footwear — consider yourself done.

Ts are our wearable tabula rasa, once underwear suitable only for soldier boys circa World War II, later campus and business iron-on throwaways in the '50s, and even later rock band promos ready to be gracefully defaced with pins and zippers during the punk years (and now we're back to white Ts for gangstas dodging crippling colors). Remember when the only T-shirt sizes available were L and XL? Remember when the sole women's Ts around were toddler ready, fit for showing off every chub roll acquired from here to the nearest bakery? Whether you break them down between screen prints and iron-ons or between skate-beach-BMX, rock–metal–punk–pop–hip-hop, and TV-film-cartoon-advertising specimens, as Lisa Kidner and Sam Knee do in their 2006 book, Vintage T-Shirts (Collins Design, $19.95) — there's an unsnooty, democratic beauty to a T.

Long after those faux–feed store and John Deere–logoed T-shirts have evaporated and aeons after the not-so-ironically offensive faux-Asian biz T-shirts have been yanked from Abercrombie and Fitch, we can still fall for a few artfully decorated scraps of tissue-thin jersey — and not just those by newbie local hotshot T designers such as Turk+Taylor ( or My Trick Pony ( Only a few months ago I was bewitched into purchasing a $9 Flying V–bedecked shirt with a factory-frayed neck and sleeves at Le Target, of all places — the ideal block-rockin' New Year's Eve outfit with a black chiffon tiered skirt and boots. Why did I fall? It never fails to get compliments and fits like a teenage dream, and I can always make room for another music T in my collection, which encompasses an '80s Sex Pistols reproduction purchased from the back pages of Creem, a boxy Poison pachyderm rewarded after a gig loading out for the hair metal combo, and a Scottish-slurred "Where am I and what the fuck's going on?" Arab Strap T.

Lucky us, living at ground zero of the rock-T explosion: in 1968, the late Bill Graham began printing shirts regularly for the first time, an effort that distinguished him from fan club and individual band merchandising designs, according to Erica Easley, who cowrote Rock Tease: The Golden Years of Rock T-Shirts (Abrams Image, $19.95).

Also from this author

  • Women with movie cameras

    Cheers to CAAMFest's crop of female Asian American film directors

  • Spiking the box office

    THE YEAR IN FILM: Looking back at a triumphant year for African American films

  • Not from around here

    French synth-pop giants Phoenix and Daft Punk tap into the alien within