In 2006, Britney Spears was wearing one of Junk Food’s Little Miss Sunshine tees—based on the Roger Hargreaves children’s book—when she had a wardrobe malfunction getting out of a limo. (The shirt, Najjar says, became a best-seller.) One can only guess why Spears bought the shirt—was it an ironic counterpoint to her coming self-immolation, or a sly way of reclaiming her lost childhood? In any case, in a decade Junk Food will probably be making Britney Spears “concert” tees for people who had never heard of Spears before the comeback tour.
One afternoon, I call Bruce Vilanch, the comedy writer who writes the Oscar telecast and was once a furry presence on Hollywood Squares. Before a recent cull, Vilanch owned more than 4,000 T-shirts. “I buy new,” he says. “There’s nothing really vintage of interest.” What Vilanch means is that once you get out of your twenties and thirties, you have enough real memories tucked into your T-shirt drawer that stealing someone else’s seems invasive, gauche. “Everybody’s got a Woodstock shirt,” Vilanch says. “Well, I was actually at Woodstock. I got a T-shirt there.”
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Memories aren’t the only thing we’re stealing when we buy a vintage T-shirt. We’re stealing someone’s geography, too. The vintage T-shirt market is like a Risk board in which cool is transferred from places Out There—Lexington, Ky.; Odessa, Texas—to the places In Here—Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Silver Lake, Los Angeles.
Reed Hushka once owned a vintage shirt illustrated with the state of Nebraska and a dove. It read, “Nebraskans for Peace.” “When I was in college, people would just shout out the slogan of my T-shirt,” Hushka says. In hipsterized Bozeman, Mont., Hushka was using the Nebraskans—those unsmiling, dovish Nebraskans—as badges of authenticity. Their very uncoolness made them, and him, cool.
Hushka, who’s originally from North Dakota, knows all about this geographic transaction. Sleevecandy’s business model is to acquire Salvation Army stock in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit, put it on handsome Web pages, and sell it to people who live elsewhere. (The company menschily returns a chunk of the money to the Salvation Army.) It turns out that what Milwaukeeans do effortlessly is what Williamsburgers do with difficulty, for $40.
But it’s a mistake to think “Nebraskans for Peace”—or “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” or “Are We Having Fun Yet?”—are pre-ironic messages, the products of “less self-conscious” decades, as Lisa Kidner and Sam Knee write in the book Vintage T-shirts. At Scout, the New York shop, I find a yellow T-shirt that says, “Amarillo: Where the West Lingers On.” Kitschy, sure, but the shirt’s message was—and is—acute. Amarillo, Texas, is one of the geographic outposts of the West; the word lingers perfectly conveys how cowboy style loiters in citified Texas. The shirt means exactly what it was supposed to mean. There’s nothing naive about it.
What’s being sold is Amarillo—distant, exotic Amarillo. In fact, the longer I live in New York City, the more I find my shirt collection becoming a roadside billboard for the Southwest. I wear “Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die” (from Tombstone, Ariz.). I wear a T-shirt from Billy Bob’s honky tonk in Fort Worth. When I wear the shirts in Brooklyn, I am asserting a reverse geographical snobbery. I’m saying: I’m a pilgrim from a less-mannered—and thus utterly cool—civilization. And all I brought back was this lousy vintage T-shirt.
* * *
Kosciuszko Elementary School is a three-story, brick building in Cudahy, Wis. Kim Berner, the principal, sounds only slightly shaken when I call her one morning to tell her about the journey of “Kosciuszko Walkathon 2010.” Cudahy is a suburb of Milwaukee—an Out There sort of place—and Kosciuszko is one of the town’s five elementary schools. The name is Polish; it’s pronounced Kuh-zhu-sko, though a lot of people say Kah-zee-oo-sko. The school mascot is the eagle.
The 2010 walkathon, Berner explains, was held to raise money to buy new computers. The students—and some parents—slipped on their T-shirts and marched to a nearby park and back, covering a distance of about a mile. Berner had the grades walk at different times, so Cudahy didn’t turn into Zuccotti Park. The kids also held a carnival that night, with bounce houses and cotton candy—“the traditional kind of thing.”
“Kosciuszko Walkathon 2010” was cheap—maybe $6 for the parents, Berner remembers. At the moment the shirt slipped out of its natural place in space-time, then, it nearly quadrupled in value. And because of its sublime Americanness—a cultural history we intuited but did not actually understand—the vintage tee achieved perfection. Third graders. Bounce houses. Milwaukee suburbs. “Is the shirt blue?” Berner asks me. “Because this year, we had a purple T-shirt.” Get ready for the next, awesome vintage T-shirt: “Kosciuszko Walkathon 2011.”
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