Why the t-shirt may be the most ubiquitous article of clothing


, but also the best for self-expression

In 1992, Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty, the iconic tag-team duo known as The Rockers, appeared on a wrestling segment titled “The Barber Shop” hosted by fellow wrestler Brutus Beefcake. The pair was on the verge of breaking up. After talking it out, however, Michaels and Jannetty shook hands and everything appeared to be back on track.


But of course, in the world of wrestling entertainment, happy reunions derived from open communication is a seldom employed storyline. With one swift, unprovoked superkick to his partner’s chin, Michaels became one of the most hated wrestlers on the planet. Cementing his newfound status as heel, he proceeded to toss Jannetty through the glass window of the faux barber shop set. Michaels went on to have a legendary wrestling career, while Jannetty receded to the background.

As a kid immigrating from Hong Kong to Canada, wrestling played a huge role in my attempts to familiarize myself with the wonders of North American culture. In the third grade, I would watch Monday Night Raw religiously, and Jerry Springer too, because these were the shows the cool kids got away with watching at night. This is why, years later, when I came upon a Jannetty t-shirt at Mr. Throwback, a vintage clothing store in New York’s Lower East Side, it was a t-shirt I needed to own – even if the price, at US$60, felt a bit steep.

Wearing this shirt would give me ownership of one of my most cherished childhood moments. It was a gateway back to all those hours I spent trying to immerse myself through wrestling. It was also my way of expressing to the rest of the world that I was a part of the culture, not just a semi-devoted fan, but someone whose knowledge was rich enough that he would want to wear a Jannetty t-shirt.

It is, of course, a matter of social necessity to wear clothing. But pieces of apparel, like the Jannetty t-shirt, can be more than a mere requirement of everyday living. It also has the capability to grant the person wearing it an opportunity to express a part of themselves to the world. In fact, no article of clothing combines simple functionality with expression quite like a t-shirt with graphics.

The history of the graphic t-shirt can be traced back to a scene from The Wizard of Oz in 1939, when the workers stuffing the scarecrow in the movie wore green t-shirts with the word “Oz” on it. From there, graphic t-shirts started to become a part of pop culture, and the go-to piece of apparel for self-expression. From soldiers in the Second World War wearing t-shirts bearing the logos and names of their branches to famous rock groups in the 1960s and 1970s, like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, turning their branded t-shirts into collector’s items for their fans.

Today, graphic tees are everywhere, from the vintage kind to mass-produced tees from brands like Nike, Adidas, Gucci and many others. It makes perfect sense for the t-shirt to be the one piece of clothing where you can most easily express yourself. It is, after all, the most visible item of your ensemble. It’s right there, across your chest, making a first impression to anyone who takes a glance.

Today, many designer brands have recognized the value of self-expression to the consumer, and incorporated that into their strategy of producing graphic tees. Uniqlo, a Japanese casual wear company, was founded in 1949, and has evolved into a worldwide brand. While Uniqlo takes a minimalist approach to their apparel, their graphic t-shirt line has exploded in recent years.

At a pop-up event in Toronto this Spring, Uniqlo’s UT WEAR YOUR WORLD exhibit on Queen Street featured a display of over 1,000 t-shirt designs from the brand’s archive. Uniqlo has collaborated on designs involving the works of artists Andy Warhol, KAWS and Keith Haring. They’ve also worked with larger brand names, including Nintendo, Hello Kitty and Marvel. Rei Matsunuma, Uniqlo’s Global Marketing Manager, believes very much in the power of the t-shirt. “The t-shirt is to express what I love and what I’m interested in,” Matsunuma said. “Any t-shirt is the start of a communication.”

Because of the brand’s global reach, Matsunuma has placed a great emphasis on introducing Japanese pop culture to people around the world. Recently, Uniqlo released t-shirts celebrating the 50th anniversary of Shonen Jump, a weekly manga anthology published in Japan that is popular across age groups. “It is important to communicate Japanese culture through our t-shirts,” Matsunuma said. “At the same time, it is also important to bring foreign cultures into Japan. As a Japanese company, we want to make sure what is culturally important is preserved for the future. We want it to pass on to the next generation, and also show them something new.”

Every t-shirt has a story, and Matsunuma is using his understanding of t-shirts as a means of self-expression to tell these stories with various collaborations. “It’s to pull out the individual,” Matsunuma said. “It’s to express pop culture, but also who you are.”

There is a price to self-expression through t-shirts, however. While Uniqlo’s tees fall on the more affordable side of the graphic tee spectrum, other brands are not so kind to the wallet. For some, simply paying to show you can afford a brand is all the expression that is desired. But there is something to be said about the journey to find a t-shirt that defines a part of your life; of being able to wear the shirt, share in the joy of it with strangers on the street who loved wrestling, and witness the thrill of people remembering a wrestler they hadn’t thought of for years. That makes the value of the t-shirt, whether it costs $60 or some other exorbitant amount, priceless.

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