One of the many peculiar features of our modern age is the t-shirt controversy. Obsessive news-readers will encounter several of them almost every month, usually involving a student who has run afoul of his school’s dress code, sometimes a disgruntled shopper complaining that some censorious rent-a-cop denied him entry to the local mall, and always a result of our popular culture’s strange insistence on expressing itself on its chest. These days the offending opinions are likely to be religious, patriotic, or otherwise offensive to prevailing polite opinion, which is yet another peculiar feature of our modern age.
The latest spate of t-shirt controversies include a young girl who was forbidden to wear a t=shirt declaring that “Virginity Rocks” and a prominent quarterback for a professional football team wasn’t allowed to appear before the press in a t-shirt with the words “Know Jesus, Know Peace.” There’s another story about an Army officer who wasn’t allowed in his daughter’s school because of his uniform, and of course the recent federal court decision upholding a school’s right to ban any wearing of the American flag for fear of offending the foreign students. The Arkansas middle school that objected to the pro-virginity slogan said it was simply trying to avoid any uncomfortable discussions about sexuality, the professional football league invoked a higher power by saying that the pro-Jesus t-shirt wasn’t an officially licensed Nike product, the Detroit school that stopped the Army officer at its door hilariously explained that it was because he wasn’t wearing a tie, as if anyone in Detroit wears a tie and an Army uniform isn’t sufficiently businesslike by the standards of the Detroit public schools, but even if one buys in to any of this a trend is apparent. Another controversy occurred when some college students wore t-shirts with an obscene suggestion for “Safe Zones,” but that was because of its offense to the school’s up-to-date speech codes rather than any concern for old-fashioned notions of propriety.
Although we stand foursquare for middle school virginity, Jesus, the United States Army, and the American flag, and certainly find them less offensive than the obscenities and insults and likenesses of Che Guevara that shout at us from t-shirts all over the public square, we find it hard to work up much indignation over a t-shirt. Here’s hoping the unwelcome Army officer gets even more groveling apologies from that school for its absurd insult to his service, but the people who could have shown up in primary colored t-shirt free of unasked opinions, or even a nice button-down, must fight their battles without us. Libertarian principle forbids us from any governmental attempt to squelch even the most frivolous forms of free speech, but a traditionalist streak in us can’t help yearning for a bygone era when people voluntarily didn’t wear their opinions on their chest.
In most cases the t-shirts proclaim the wearer’s allegiance to some sports team or rock ‘n’ roll band or clothing manufacturer, which is probably a starter to the most interesting conversation you can have with him, but otherwise it is always something calculated to give offense to somebody. Even when the words are agreeable to us we can’t help wondering if any idea that can be expressed on a t-shirt is worth expressing, and whether those ideas wouldn’t be more persuasively expressed by someone dressed in an adult and serious fashion. The notion that individuality is best expressed by t-shirts and tattoos and vaguely Afro-French-sounding names is of recent and uncertain vintage, and cannot explain why the most daringly transgressive and individualistic figures of the pre-modern era all looked pretty much like else. There were always the extravagant sorts, from Oscar Wilde to Gen. George Custer to Isadora Duncan and her fatally-long scarves, but even these showboats would never have thought of donating their chests to free advertising for some sports team or political cause or foul-mouthed joke. According to the old black-and-white movies even the gangsters aspired to look like respectable Republican businessmen, and and embarrassingly betrayed themselves with a street-level garishness.
So far as we can tell the clothing controversies started when switchblade-wielding kids started showing up at mostly-white high schools with black leather jackets and white t-shirts and rolled-up jeans and basketball shoes a look now regarded as classic continually evoked by subsequent counter-cultures, and intensified when all those long-haired and tie-dyed hippie freaks started filling the local parks with that odd sweet smell. Anyone old enough to recall that era is probably discombobulated by a time when virginity and Jesus and the American flag are the controversial attire, but we mostly lament that people no longer feel free to be themselves without imposing themselves on the fellow just ahead in the grocery store check-out line.
— Bud Norman