“I`m sorry, I`m allergic to stupid people.” There are some things that you can`t say in real life, but you can wear them on a t-shirt. When it comes to regular social etiquette, t-shirt slogans launch the rules right out of the window, turning jokes reserved for Christmas crackers and statements of bemused contempt into catchphrases and quotes that bring sly smiles to all that read them. So what is it about the printed t-shirt that makes it ok to walk around with “Did you eat a bowl of stupid for breakfast?” plastered across your chest?
The truth is that t-shirt slogans make an art form out of the fine comedic line between laughing with someone and laughing at them. Instead of feeling insulted by a phrase like “I`m not getting smaller, I`m backing away from you”, readers of t-shirt slogans presume the insult is directed at a third party, a figure of ineptitude we can all relate to – and, increasingly often, revile – creating a shared joke, rather than a direct insult that alienates the recipient.
If this all sounds a bit far-fetched, just think about how often you or the people you know are forced to deal with those who are, let`s say, seemingly intellectually challenged. With an economy increasingly based upon service, it is ever more likely that your daily routine will involve the frustration of dealing with someone stuck in the blissful state of ignorance, be it your boss, your customers or even people in the street. Take that into consideration and it isn`t hard to see where the fashion for this form of printed riposte comes from. Where self-deprecating slogans such as “Do not disturb – I`m disturbed enough already” used to rule the t-shirt marketplace, now the more aggressive form of externally-directed castigation is king, addressing the elephant in the room that we are all too polite to mention (namely that there is no shortage of idiots in the world) and making a mockery of it.
Of course, rude, insulting humour is not the only kind that appears on t-shirts, but neither is it the only form that has seen a recent increase in popularity. With an exponential increase in our reliance on computers comes the need for IT-related services, including an abundance of programmers and software developers. This newly-expanded social group share common knowledge and practices across their industry, making the world of computer geekery the perfect breeding ground for inside jokes and cliquey humour. Slogans like “Computer programmers don`t byte – they nibble a bit” arise from puns and stereotypes based on knowledge that is common to the IT crowd and make great icebreakers for the otherwise socially awkward.
In fact, this is the reason that t-shirts can get away with slogans like “Coffee, chocolate, men . . . Some things are just better rich”: although the humour on t-shirts might be conventionally cheesy, cheeky or even rude, slogan t-shirts perform a social function, uniting readers and wearers through a common joke.
Look at other popular forms of printed t-shirts – band shirts, football or sports team shirts, even stag and hen do special printed tees – and you start to see that the fashion of t-shirts is often linked to the function of community. Thinking about it, it all starts to make sense – it`s the reason why this place offers things like leavers hoodies, retaining the sense of community after leaving the institution, the reason teams have colours, the reason that when you see the slogan “my mother is a travel agent for guilt trips,” you feel connected to the wearer by a common understanding. T-shirts are all about the other people around you; after all, amusing though your t-shirt might be to you when you put it on in the morning, you aren`t the one who`ll be reading it all day.