Emily Liu / Daily Nexus

“No coffee, no workee,” declared the T-shirt of the girl who was sitting opposite me.

The slogan was humble, relatable and even could’ve encouraged a share on Facebook for those amused enough. We sat in the library — the random girl and I — not a word spoken between us. I didn’t even know her name. Did the words emblazoned across her chest offer an insight into her personality, her political opinion? Or was she simply stating an obvious fact: She needs caffeine to work. 

As we sat on the fifth floor in silence, I couldn’t stop thinking about her T-shirt. Its fluorescent pink text was loaded with expression and intention. Was she unaware that I was judging the poor spelling of the verb “to work?” Either way, it distracted me.

As I looked around the library, it seemed that printed tees assumed the uniforms of students. Tops carried messages with slogans ranging from “kind is cool” to “save the chubby unicorn” (accompanied by an icon of a plump rhinoceros, which admittedly warranted a cheap laugh). Are these messages connected to a wider trend or meaning behind the printed tee?

Printed tops seem to have fought their way to the forefront of our generation’s style choices. They are championed by successful brands such as Urban Outfitters and Brandy Melville, which sell vast quantities of cute tees with aesthetically pleasing text that can be as simple as “c’est la vie.” Printed text in any form is a way to project a flavour of an individual’s personality and opinion, whether it be on a poster, a newspaper, or a top. Without conflating the messages of internet memes and a person’s activism, why are printed tees so popular? 

While slogan T-shirts have been popular since the 1960s, fashion has evolved throughout the decades. Although certain imposters like Crocs, leg warmers and the Tumblresque denim shorts paired with tights have clung on into 2020, they underscore our society’s cycle of change. 

Clothes and style offer insight into how we view the world, how we judge others and how we want to present ourselves. Printed T-shirts are no exception to this change and have expressed themselves on all levels of fashion, even elevating to runway activism. The first collection by Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first-ever female creative director at Christian Dior, featured a T-shirt printed with the words “We Should All Be Feminists.” The popularity of simple printed tees is evident on all levels of fashion, whether it be to assert one’s political standpoint or to simply broadcast “YOLO.”

Perhaps the popularity of these brands is symbolic of how our generation is adamant about voicing our opinions, without needing to be prompted.

The humble printed tee has created an expansive market of punchy political slogans that transcends meme culture. Brands like Redbubble are dedicated to selling tees that promote “Political Activism” and highlight the growing demand for this style. The website’s merchandise selection is vast. Its empire has built itself based on catchy slogans like “knowledge is power” but also through advocating more intense mottos; one tee priced at $22.15 simply reads, “Truth is the New Hate Speech.”

While these phrases carry more punch than “c’est la vie” or “Live, Love and Laugh,” these tops represent both an article of style and an opinion. A similar brand, ALLRIOT, uses this cocktail of fashion and thought to sell kickass political T-shirts” to its market. The brand urges their audience to “be a voice, not an echo.”

Perhaps the popularity of these brands is symbolic of how our generation is adamant about voicing our opinions, without needing to be prompted. They act as a reminder that we all have a subtle influence on how we represent ourselves and our character each day. 

However, the T-shirt debate can be turned inside out. While it supports political activism, it also provides a platform for humour. The top worn by the girl sitting in the library across from me cracks an unspoken joke. It mediates a mutual humour among people through a subtle, even subliminal, medium. It projects how you might want people to see you when you go out into the world (even if all of your clothes are dirty, and this random meme-top you don’t know how you acquired is the last resort). Wearing a satirical shirt might make someone’s day. 

While tops like “but first, wine” won’t change the world, they do bring a wry smile to most faces. Our interest in and ability to customize tops or buy popular sloganed merch expresses how effective these memorable phrases are. It allows us as individuals to stand out, effortlessly. The increase of printed T-shirts isn’t lazy designing, but a response to our individualistic nature as humans. It’s a sign of our willingness to simultaneously broadcast our voices and relate to others. However, if I customize my top with my LinkedIn profile — is that self-expression or just self-promotion?

Alice Symington hopes to make someone smile next time she wears a printed tee.