Consider the perfect vintage T-shirt. It’s a well-worn piece of kitsch awesomer than a Star Wars iron-on, “I’m With Stupid,” or Live Aid ‘85. The perfect vintage tee is Dodger blue. It’s a size small. (In vintage T-shirt land, that means it fits like an extra-small.) It contains one illustration: a sneaker. In white letters, the shirt reads, “Kosciuszko Walkathon 2010.”
“We assumed it was from Chicago,” says Reed Hushka, the president of Sleevecandy, the online retailer that’s selling the shirt. “The name sounds Polish. But my friend had another theory: that it came from a town in Missouri.” When you parade around in a T-shirt like “Kosciuszko Walkathon 2010”—and this is something I do a lot—you are stepping into a contextual black hole. You might as well be wearing a signboard written in Mandarin. But as Hushka explains, it’s this “awesomely random” quality that gives a vintage tee its value. Sleevecandy is selling “Kosciuszko Walkathon 2010” for $22.
So consider the perfectly baffling vintage T-shirt: Who were the Kosciuszkos? Whence did they walk? I now know the answers. But first we have to solve the bigger mystery, which is: Why are we buying these things in the first place?
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In a plain, red-brick warehouse in New Jersey, a lump of used clothing is zooming down a conveyor belt. A Hispanic woman examines the lump, and tosses it on another conveyor belt. Another woman picks it up and examines it again. People who work at Manhattan T-shirt boutiques had whispered to me that this place was vintage T-shirt heaven, a mecca. The warehouse owner looks at me, shrugs, and says, “It’s a recycling business.”
This is the first crucial piece of context about vintage T-shirts: They are part of a giant international salvage operation. Eric Stubin, the president of Trans-Americas Trading Co., buys nearly 17 million pounds of clothes each year, mostly from charities. Stubin’s quest is to squeeze as much money as he can from every article. About half the clothes that arrive at his warehouse become fibers for car-seat cushions or wiping rags to sell at Home Depot. Most of the rest is judged so new or so uncool that it’s earmarked to sell at a low price in Africa or Latin America.
A tiny remaining slice consists of vintage pieces—suits, jeans, T-shirts—with a value of a more than few dollars. “It’s about 2 percent of what our industry touches,” says Stubin. The vintage T-shirt you buy, then, is a rescue item that narrowly avoided vaporization or an overseas flight.
When one of these T-shirts is discovered on the conveyer belt—“York County Soccer” or “Lexington Market Bingo”—it is sent to Emma Allen and Hannah Nichols, who work in Trans-Americas’ vintage department. Allen and Nichols are vintage T-shirt power brokers. The New York boutiques come to them in search of stock—but don’t want their names published, lest their competitors figure out their source. “We’re beginning to get into the heads of people all over the world,” Allen tells me. Every civilization has its own vintage needs. Boston and London like preppy vintage. Japanese vintage shops want American T-shirts from the 1950s, rather than the ’70s and ’80s stock that Americans crave.
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.
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.
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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.”