The Problem With T-Shirts

by Thomas Beller


600 West End Ave, New York, NY 10024

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

This essay appears in Thomas Beller’s essay collection, “How To Be a Man.”


There are those for whom a T-shirt is just another name for an undershirt, the sort of thing that never sees the light of day. But for others, myself included, T-shirts often are the main event, and the arrival of spring has prompted me to reconsider my T-shirts, and the problems that go with them.
Like most people, my T-shirt collection has developed in a haphazard manner– a free one here, an impulse buy there. Even at the time of their acquisition, they are negligible possessions, and get treated as such. No other item of clothing is valued less than T-shirts, in spite of the fact that a T-Shirt single handedly turns its wearer into a walking billboard (even the plain white ones carry a kind of James Dean circa “Rebel Without a Cause” message). They are often drenched in sweat during some strenuous physical exercise, or spattered with bits of food, since the state of hyper awareness that exists while eating in a nice dress shirt is absent while eating in a T-shirt, which of course, is part of its appeal. Then they get crumpled up and thrown in a corner or stuffed in a bag. Socks admittedly give it competition in the No Respect category, but sock enthusiasts will point out that socks are capable of levels of style and elegance that a T-shirt could never attain. The other logical competition for lowest spot on the wardrobe totem pole would be underwear, but we seem to be living in the age of underwear– entire museum exhibitions are dedicated to it, and walking around New York these days, one is surrounded by a kaleidoscope of underwear imagery: on buses, on billboards, and on people.

Now and then a T-shirt fad will pop up, but they’re never very convincing. Some time ago Frankie Says Relax was popular. Now, it’s the Phillies Blunt logo. I’ve always preferred more eclectic T-shirts, such as the one I recently received which promotes a publication titled “Pain Digest.” The logo sprawls across the chest, big white letters against dark blue, and the phrase “Advanced Literature for Pain,” runs across the back. This item has always been popular at adventuresome social occasions.

With the arrival of authentic T-shirt weather, I found myself in a contemplative mode, staring into a drawer devoted exclusively to T-shirts. I had just done the wash, and they lay in two neat square piles, like a multicolored layer cake. Some were fairly new, while others were six or seven years old. Each of the older ones had been acquired during a long departed era. They were like souvenirs from a trip I’d once taken. I reached into the pile and felt fabric as soft as cashmere and as cool and smooth as silk.

And here is the real problem with T-shirts: they improve with age, getting better and better until one day, they disappear. Their finest moment is their grand finale. This is true of shoes and jeans too – especially now days, when the more torn and frayed the better – but shoes can always be resoled and Jeans can be patched, and both, when all is finally lost, still have a physical presence, a weight you can feel on your hand. But T-shirts will just keep getting thinner and finer until they’re gone. One moment it is perfect, and then a tiny hole appears, and then another; a tear along the seam might develop, and one day you reach into your drawer and pull out what to the untrained eye would look a handkerchief. What then?

Of course you just throw it out. But there’s a catch. One doesn’t have to be wildly sentimental to get attached to a T-shirt that used to belong to an old flame, or the one advertising a high school or college in faded letters, or even that ridiculous thing that one swore would never see the light of day but has taken on some importance because you were a whole other person when you first slipped it on. These objects are as evocative as snapshots. They’re documents, but they can’t be reproduced.

My own solution, I discovered that day, is an informal T-shirt Hall of Fame. Way down at the bottom of the drawer several T-shirts are lying in state, like antiquities. Sometimes, when I’m fumbling around for a newer model, I’ll reach down into the cool darkness and brush against their fragile surfaces, waiting there like understudies for one last day in the sun.

Originally in The New Yorker

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