I search through cardboard boxes in the Trans-Americas warehouse and find piles of shirts. Boutique owners will loot these same boxes and buy the shirts for an average of $4 to $8 apiece—and then jack up the price several times before they sell it to you.
At the recycling stage, the precious ironic phrases and artwork that adorn vintage tees mean almost nothing. For one thing, Allen and Nichols see dozens of Royal Caribbean “I’m Shipshape” T-shirts. “It’s not funny anymore,” Allen says a bit wearily. For another thing, the women charged with examining the endless conveyor belts of clothing often speak little English. Imagine trying to explain ’80s kitsch to them: why a Reading Rainbow tee is innately hilarious, or why someone might giggle at a shirt that says “Leave Me Alone.” In an Internet store, “Kosciuszko Walkathon 2010” means almost nothing. Here, as it zooms down the belt, it means even less.
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After sifting through Trans-Americas’ boxes, some T-shirt shops, and my own dresser, I’ve decided there are 10 types of vintage T-shirts.
The first type is the Concert/Movie/Celebrity T-shirt. This covers the entertainment spectrum: Olivia Newton-John, E.T., Ernest. The second type is the Sports T-shirt. You score when you find extinct franchises like the Quebec Nordiques.
Location T-shirts—tees that advertise countries, states, and neighborhoods—are big sellers. Often, these shirts reverse-brag about their location: e.g., “Odessa: 20 Miles From Water, 2 Feet From Hell.” “Ithaca is Gorges” is a classic Location T-shirt. “Ithaca is Cold” is a Location T-shirt that seems to be answering another Location T-shirt.
The fourth category of vintage T-shirt makes a False Claim. San Jose, a vintage tee declares, is “Track Capital USA.” It is? It was? Another shirt says the “Last Wild Party” was set to occur on June 16, 1982.
A cousin of the False Claim T-shirt is the Eerily Specific T-shirt. “Kosciuszko Walkathon 2010” assumes everyone knows the Kosciuszkos. (That “2010” is also a nice touch, and gets a little bit cooler with each passing year.) At Scout Vintage T-shirts, a shop in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, I find a tee with a bulldog that reads, “E.M. Daggett.” Daggett was the next elementary school over from mine when I was growing up in Fort Worth, Texas. No customer besides me and the shirt’s former owner could possibly know this.
There are Softball Vintage T-shirts, our sixth category. Whether from softball teams or bowling leagues or mechanics’ shops, the notable thing about these shirts is the proper names—“Paul,” “Debbie”—printed on the breast. It’s funny if it’s your name on the shirt; it’s funny even if it’s not. The Iron-On T-shirt was an objet d’art of the ’ 70s/’80s, with prints ranging from Mr. T to long-abandoned catchphrases like “Well, Excuuuse Me!”
The eighth category of vintage tee is the Corporate T-shirt. I’m a Pepper. I’ve Got My MTV. Exxon shirts sell briskly these days, says Reed Hushka. The funny thing is, an Occupy Wall Street protester who’d never slip on an Exxon T-shirt might wear one made 30 years ago, when the oil industry was equally venal but (crucially) before he was born. Time makes corporatism funny—a notion Naomi Klein could get a whole book out of.
The ninth category is the Camp T-shirt—“camp” not just in the Sontagian sense but in the pine trees and canoes sense. People who got exiled to Camp Agawak each summer love these shirts.
Finally, there’s the D.A.R.E. T-shirt. This shirt is huge now with potheads. They especially love shirts with Daren, D.A.R.E.’s lion mascot. This vintage T-shirt declares you are fully aware of William Bennett-era strategies for drug prevention and you just don’t give a shit.
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Buying a vintage T-shirt is an act of larceny. We didn’t really go to Altamont or WrestleMania 2, but by wearing a 50/50 cotton-polyester blend, already nicely broken in, we steal someone else’s memory of the event. A couple of years ago, on a shopping trip with my friend David, I bought a late-’80s Texas Rangers T-shirt. I actually rooted for the ’80s Rangers, but none of my shirts made it to adulthood. So I stole someone’s Rangers memory, combined it with my own fuzzy one, and appeared to the world like the ultimate die-hard.
The act of memory-stealing gets stranger still. Several clothiers have begun to sell “retro” T-shirts, which are new shirts designed to look like they’re old and worn. “Our aesthetic is vintage,” Andrei Najjar, the vice president of marketing for Junk Food Clothing, tells me. Junk Food snaps up the rights to ’80s icons ranging from Snoopy to R2-D2 and puts them on shirts that look like they could have been made two decades earlier. Their business model is to steal a collective cultural memory and sell it back to us without holes or sweat stains.