"Just grab a shirt and let's go," my girlfriend said.
But I hesitated. We were going whitewater
rafting with her mother, and the top T-shirt in my drawer
proclaimed its wearer an "Uneducated Idiot." Somehow it didn't seem
a wise message.
The moment has resonated with me, in part
because I live near Yellowstone National Park, which is like grad
school for T-shirt scholars. The question that drives my research:
How do people select a shirt to wear? Is it, "OK, we're in the
mountains, so I need 'Vail' not 'Cancun'"?
T-shirts are a
vacation phenomenon. Most people don't wear them to the office. But
for some reason, vacationers always wear T-shirts from some place
else. In Yellowstone, people buy T-shirts that say "Yellowstone
National Park" on them, but they won't wear them until they get out
of the park. The way I figure it, at any given location, the
recreation of people on vacation is to buy T-shirts to wear on
their next vacations.
I've also been thinking about the
way they're made. When you say "T-shirt," most people think of the
stereotype: cheaply produced and boasting a dumb saying, like the
"I'm with Stupid" T-shirts of the 1970s (and I'll admit, in junior
high school I thought those were pretty funny). But in the last 20
years, we've seen increasingly sophisticated T-shirts.
Call it the Lands End factor. "We use 100 percent ringspun combed
cotton (the softer, stronger kind) in a substantial jersey knit,"
says the famously overwritten clothing catalog, also discussing
"premium ink," "covered seams," and a "generous cut." About a
These fancier T-shirts generally have more subtle
messages. After all, they can't say "My relatives went to
Yellowstone, and all I got was this $35 ringspun combed cotton
jersey knit softer, stronger kind of shirt." No, an expensive shirt
just says "Yellowstone" or preferably someplace more obscure, such
as "McGuffin's Flyfishing Lodge."
But again, you never
wear the McGuffin's T-shirt to McGuffin's. You wear it to Sun
Valley or Santa Fe, where it advertises the fact that your previous
vacation was at someplace more obscure and exclusive. At
McGuffin's, you wear a T-shirt from a helicopter-skiing resort in
the northeastern Yukon. And in the Yukon -- luckily for you or else
the addiction would get prohibitively expensive -- it's too cold to
I'm something of a rebel against this
societal striving (either that, or I'm something of a cheapskate):
I prefer a free "County Fun Run" sort of T-shirt.
however, led to my problem the day of the rafting trip. My Boys and
Girls Club T-shirt and county basketball tournament T-shirt were in
the wash. My fun-run T-shirt clashed with my shorts. Since my
girlfriend's mother doesn't drink, I didn't want to wear T-shirts
given out by my favorite taverns and microbreweries. My Society of
American Foresters T-shirt (received for speaking to a regional
meeting) was too threadbare, and my High Country News T-shirt (a
bonus for writing articles like this one) was the one I'd been
wearing the last time I met the woman.
That left just the
"Uneducated Idiot" T-shirt, which I’d received for
participating in an odd if entertaining political battle: A
developer had said that the only people who opposed his project
were "uneducated idiots." So an over-educated opponent took the
slur as a point of pride and printed up shirts repeating it. Still,
I've learned that I get lots of strange looks when I wear that
shirt out of town.
What would I have given at that moment
for a $35 McGuffin Flyfishing Lodge T-shirt! I was ready to spend
thousands of dollars on a vacation, the purpose of which would be
to buy some better shirts to wear to the next family weekend. Then
I remembered a different approach, revealed during a visit last
summer from my friend Steve, a Wall Street accountant. He spent his
entire vacation wearing a T-shirt with an unexplained acronym that
was something like SSECA.
Finally I asked him, "What's
SSECA?" I imagined it being something like the Symposium on
Standards and Ethics in Corporate Accounting, an effort to show
that his last trip had been someplace more obscure and exclusive
"Oh, I don't know," he said. "I just grabbed whatever was on top in