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The last time I was down in the States, my daughter and I stopped by the Garment District in East Cambridge (Mass.), a funky clothing establishment where, on Fridays, you can get gently worn apparel at $1 a pound. I came back with this gray T-shirt from Barnstable Bat Company, which sports a codfish in its logo. The town of Barnstable (pronounced "BARN-stbbl"), is on Cape Cod, so that would explain the codfish--but the image that first popped into my head at the words "bat company" ... was of a large, winged bat. (My mate thought the logo indicated a fish market. We were both wrong. The company makes wooden baseball bats.)
I once inherited a T-shirt with the black dog on it. I say "the" black dog, because most everyone on the Cape would recognize it as the dog from the Black Dog Tavern, a Martha's Vineyard island icon, no need to add identifying words.
A couple of years ago it seemed a trend hereabouts to wear clothing covered with words from seam to seam, as part of the design. The words--from long quotations to strings of random phrases--could be in any language and they didn't have to make any sense. I saw one in Latin once, in Gothic script trailing up the sleeves from cuff to shoulder and continuing across the back; and one frilly top that contained nothing but action verbs.
Putting words and images on clothing as messages (or "art"), though, is nothing new. Words or symbols attached to or printed on items (not just clothing) that compels us, consciously or subconsciously, to buy, wear or use them, or as expressions of who we think we are.
Somewhere along the line, in looking to heighten brand-name identification, corporations must have noted the invisibility factor of labels sewn into the inside of a garment and decided to be more in-your-face about letting everyone know just whose product that piece of clothing you happen to be wearing, is. ("Let's put our name (or company logo) on the outside!" I can imagine them saying.) A marketer's dream: "Ah," someone notes unconsciously, encountering the worded garment being walked down the street, "she shops at [insert name of department store]." The wearer, in effect, has become a human billboard for that particular clothing corporation.
Then came the T-shirt phenomenon, where words and symbols exploded as messages of hope ("Yes We Can!"), anger ("No More War!"), concern ("Save the Whale!", "Free Tibet", etc.), as a way of parading one's status, personal beliefs, academic or political affiliation, or attitude.
This propensity to wear the words and symbols with which we identify is not just limited to clothing. We also like stenciling them into our own bodies, by way of a tattoo needle. Unlike the branding of cattle--which for the animal is involuntary--the marking of one's own body as a wearable word or symbol is an example of, I think, the all-too-human desire to "say" something about ourselves, to express something that's inside (by wearing it on the outside).
They're so pervasive nowadays, these worded garments, though, that people barely notice anymore. Nor does anyone necessarily know or even care what they mean, these mass-produced words or symbols copied, spread, worn--as "decoration". (I'm pretending I'm an alien from another planet, looking down on Planet Earth and wondering: "Why do they have this peculiar need to want to enhance everything--with text, or more color, or accessorization?" ha ha.)
I once was putting something away in my closet and noticed that practically everything in there was of a solid color (mainly Navy blue, black, or earth colors). Only the occasional delightful cobalt blue, vivid red, dreamy bluish-green, or soft lavender. I can't wear white or gray--the color immediately drains from my eyes with the former, and I look literally half dead with the latter. I never buy anything orange, kelly green, yellow, or pink, because they're not me. Stripes (depending in which direction, and rarely), plaid (never!), polka dots, kazillians of tiny little (or large, flashy) flowers (styles a bit on the too-"busy" side), or fabric that looks like a kitchen curtain were also not to be found in that closet And nothing with words on the front, back, pocket, hood, or sleeves. Does that make me a fashionista dinosaur, I wonder.
I do not spend a lot of money on clothing, and I recycle them frequently. Knowing where somebody's clothing comes from or having a preconceived notion about certain 'types' of clothing can heighten (or lower) one's perception of the wearer of that clothing. You see this in newspaper articles sometimes; for example, when the reporter finds it necessary to include a deatailed description of what the subject is wearing ("Mr. X, wearing a black leather jacket and chain lecklace"; Miss Y, dressed in a peasant-type skirt and black tights..."; Mr. Z, impeccably attired in a pin-striped suit and tie...", etc.), to imply something about the subject's character.
About clothing other than the 'store-bought' kind, it's not that you cant find well-fitting, quality-made or even originally outrageously expensive "brand-name" apparel at local thrift shops. You can, and I have. It's amusing though, some people would never dream of wearing a shirt or jacket formerly owned by some stranger (it must be new, straight from the manufacturer, unowned by anyone before). Wearing your dad's old hunting shirt or cousin Sally's former prom dress or an older sibling's hand-me-downs is okay, though, 'cuz they're "family.". Yes, says my imaginary alien, "You humans are certainly weird."
Yes, we are. Some of us, anyway. We come in many varieties. No one mold fits us all. And today nobody really considers the proliferation of words and symbols on the fabric in which we clothe ourselves as anything unusual. We do, however, have somewhat standard ideas about fashion, having to do with what goes with what and what doesn't. Wearing a short blue sock on one foot and a long purple sock on the other, for instance, is something no human would ever do, intentionally. Socks HAVE to match. That's just a given.
It might have something to do with the symmetricality of humans having two (matching) eyes, two (same-length) arms, two (pretty much identical) hands, legs, feet, etc. Cultural, regional or generational fashion proclivities aside, no one considers you weird for following your particular 'clan'. (They might find your clan strange but it's an acknowledged difference. You as an individual representing that clan or group fit into a knowable, identifiable category. A person deliberately going about wearing one short blue sock and one long purple sock, however, fits no easy category you can place him into. Does he fit the category of People-Who-Don't-Know-the-Rules? or the category of Somebody-Who-Doesn't-Know-Any-Better? Or maybe he's one of those People-Deliberately-Trying-to-Get-Attention type persons. The point is, wearing socks that don't match is something people notice. It calls attention to its being an anomaly. That's not the way the unspoken rule of fashion operates. Everybody knows socks have to match. It's a given.
Ditto for gender-based "rules". In most of the civilized world, men don't wear skirts. Scottish kilts, the robes worn by priests, etc, and the many-medalled military jackets of retired generals are a sort of costume put on for special occasions, not usually worn in everyday life. As are the outfits we wear in performing certain type employment such as medical, social, military, and security-related jobs. Even without identifying words, most people recognize the 'uniform.'
Like a culture's costumes hundreds or thousands of years ago, the type and style of clothing we wear is merely a reflection of who we were or are. Who knows in 50 or 100 years from now (if Planet Earth survives till then), what humans will be wearing. (Hopefully not those one-style-fits-all androgynous outfits worn by the crew of the Starship "Enterprise", samples of which I've seen go for over $2,000, as a "collectible".) ( I wonder if my Barnstable Codfish Bat T-shirt will one day be a collectible.)
For now, the codbat (as I've begun to think of it) functions as my garden shirt, upgraded from its former duty as a pajama top. I must not let those words (and that fish image) go to waste though. I must start wearing it out in public! Like to the supermarket, that when I approach the fish counter, might prompt a fellow shopper to inquire as to its meaning. (And then I can wax specific about the beaches of Cape Cod, how wonderful it is riding on a bike down some little road past those pretty cottages with flower boxed windows, the smell of the ocean air wafting past, the quiet lap of the waves, and . . .
"Really," says my fictional alien visitor, "you earth people are truly strange."
*Disclaimer. A person actually did go out the front door once having on one blue sock and one brown sock. Me. It was not intentional, however. This happened many years ago and I was shocked--shocked, I say--that I had not noticed. I immediately remedied the situation, of course, relieved that no one had seen. It was then the notion first came to me--this idea of the unspoken "rules" one accepts to live by, regarding choice, type and style, of wearing apparel. I was looking on the situation from the outside, as it were, and found the whole thing hilarious. What strange creatures we are, I remember thinking (meaning us, humans) (as if I wasn't human).
Hence the fictional alien above has some precedence. Color, style and texture are important in clothes. Words? I'm not so sure about the latter. If clothes define us (as many perceive they do), then clothes carrying words also say something about us. Or not. It's that aspect of the phenomenon that strikes me as most interesting, that words themselves, once confined merely to the printed page and directional/locational signifiers (buildings, roadways, rooms of education) escaped, as it were, and infiltrated our duds, so thoroughly, and so completely, that no one even notices anymore. It's just part of the scene.
But don't take my word for it. Try this little experiment. Wear a T-shirt with some words on it--any words--and go walk down the street. Note how many people actually LOOK at it, read what it says. Now go back home and put on one short (any color) sock, and one long (different color) sock and go sit somewhere at a bus stop, at the mall, in a waiting room or at a friend's house somewhere, where they can see your socks. Note the reactions. I'm just saying.
P.S. I'll probably recycle the 'codbat' come autumn. It cost $18 new. I got it at a Dollar-a-Pound for pennies. Who knows how old it is. I wonder who its next 'owner' will be and what its fate may eventually become: a cloth to wash the car with, maybe. Some orphanage in a third-world country. Cut up and shredded for scrap. Or hanging in a place of honor in some collector's closet, as a cherished Collectible. I wish for it the latter. No, wait. It should go to the orphanage, live a purposeful life, instead of just hanging there, taking up space. In the meantime, it lives with all my other duds, a true equal, albeit boasting somewhat of being an anomaly, being as it's the only one with (washable!!) words.
Speaking of words, ha ha. Good grief.