Why Are You So Captivated by The Graphic Tee?
‘Fess up: you, like the rest of us, probably have a disproportionate amount of graphic tees in your wardrobe. They’re comfortable. They’re easy. And with their bold quotes and artful designs that run the gamut from witty to WTF, there’s something for everyone.
Indeed, it seems like every fashion brand worth their salt has at least one graphic tee in each of their collections these days. From slogan tees at Urban Outfitters and H&M to cult designs by the likes of Supreme and Palace, and even more sophisticated designs by labels like Saint Laurent or Alexander McQueen, we can’t help but wonder: are you even a legitimate fashion brand if you aren’t selling a graphic tee?
So what’s the appeal? After all, for some, they can be a cult obsession. Supreme fans will take over Lafayette Street and line up around the block to get their hands on one of the brands’ subversive designs that reappropriate everything from Capone-N-Noreaga cover art to William S. Burroughs’ words to Barbara Kruger’s basic aesthetic, which they swiped and proceeded to use as the foundation of their brand (re: their logo). There are forums and subreddit threads devoted to the topic, and posts within these that dissect and poring over the art of wearing the graphic tee with a seriousness usually reserved for dissecting the news (or your BFF’s latest crush).
Perhaps one reason they inspire such fervor is that they’re a means of expressing ourselves—“fashion’s equivalent of a megaphone,” if you will, as Leandra Medine put it. According to Shane Gonzales, the designer behind A$AP Rocky-approved streetwear label Midnight Studios, who favors striking, vaguely nihilistic slogan tees in stark monochrome colors for the brand, graphic tees are a way to tell the world about who we are, the lazy—er, efficient—way: “I remember being a child and wearing the same band tees or streetwear tees day after day, because it showed who I was without having to say anything.”
In Medine’s words, they’re like “ephemeral tattoos…[but] we can effectively revoke the statement whenever we please.” Tattoos without the commitment, in other words—perfect for attention spans reared on Snapchat.
Moreover, they also help us recognize our tribe. You either get the graphic, or you don’t. Reminiscing on the history of the graphic tee, Staple Design’s Jeffstaple recalls the early ’90s, when “you could almost befriend a stranger because both of you were wearing a Project Dragon t-shirt, [or] some shit that only a handful of others were wearing.”
To be fair, graphic tees do have a chill and comfy AF silhouette as their starting point. Combine that with a blank canvas ripe for possibility, and it starts to seem almost inevitable that they would find their way into our hearts—and into our wardrobes. But is there anything that differentiates the good from the bad, the best from the worst, and what should you look for?
Says Gonzales, whose tee expertise has recently been tapped for a collaboration with Virgil Abloh’s OFF-WHITE, “I think a lot goes into a ‘good’ graphic t-shirt. Literally speaking, it all comes down to the fit, the weight, and the meaning of the graphic. Too tight or too light, and it’s no good.”
His favorite colors, of course, are black and white.
Stay tuned to Milk for more sartorial thoughts.