I remember that instantaneous surge of panic followed by the rush of overwhelming self-consciousness and embarrassment as I glanced down at my shirt. I was walking out of a movie theater where I had just seen a movie with some friends. I was in my early teens and had heretofore given very little thought to what message my clothes were sending. I suppose the graphic was harmless enough. In fact, it probably made a lot of sense to the purchaser as I was an artistic kid, constantly doodling on everything I got my mitts on. Why wouldn’t I want Looney Tunes characters plastered all over my chest?

For perhaps the first time in my life to that point, it occurred to me that what I was wearing didn’t align with who I was and certainly not who I wanted to be. It was not a statement I, as a young, adolescent male – forget about “ought to” – even remotely wanted to be making about myself. I had outgrown the childish identity others had been crafting for me over the previous decade or so. It suddenly all felt inappropriate and juvenile, even for pubescent little me.

Now, let me just say, I have absolutely no qualms with adults who wish to wear cartoons on their clothing. Go ahead, decorate yourselves in Disney, cover yourselves with comic book characters; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it if that’s who you are. If that’s what you love, live your truth. Nobody should be shamed for authenticity. Don’t accept someone else telling you who you are (though, keep in mind, there are better ways than others to express that). For me, however, cartoon characters have not a place in my personal truth or my style.

ARE GRAPHIC TEES APPROPRIATE FOR ADULTS?

Being an artist myself, I cannot cotton to the blanket idea of shirt art being a fashion faux pas. There are voices out there saying graphic tees don’t belong on anyone over the age of 25, but I find that to be a pretty narrow-minded and arbitrary rule. I find the whole graphic tee controversy rather foolish. That being said, I feel it behooves us each to lend some amount of thought to what we elect to emblazon across our torsos.

As I see it, there are three main motivations to don a graphic tee: promotion, positive association, and personal taste. Let’s look at these one by one.

PROMOTION

This usually comes in the form of brands/logos, causes, events, campaigns, businesses, or even lesser known bands. The purpose of this is to spread the word and show your support or affiliation. This can easily reside outside the realms of fashion but, done right, can qualify under style. I have been involved in the creation of a great deal of branded apparel over the years, and much of what’s out there can be nigh unwearable from a style standpoint, in my opinion. My philosophy has always been, if you’re going to bother to make clothing, make it wearable; it should have some visual appeal. This, unfortunately, is not a priority for many creators of such apparel. Therefore, choose carefully.

POSITIVE ASSOCIATION

This is where you as the wearer are really making a statement about who you are and the image you wish to portray. This can likewise include prominent logos of brands to which you may harbor some loyalty or with which you may feel some philosophical congruity. This also includes t-shirts of well-known bands or artists. Tour tees are very popular. Another incarnation in this category are lifestyle or vibe tees whose graphics tap into some broader, widely accepted ethos, culture, or theme. These more conceptual tees can depict things like surf culture, alcohol or dive bars, music or a particular musical genre, travel, sport, era, and the list goes on. In general, this category is about tapping into and associating yourself with an image that exists in the collective consciousness. It’s about borrowing some of the “cool” of whatever you’re displaying for yourself.

PERSONAL TASTE

This is merely just artwork you like. It’s likely to be more abstract in nature or at least unassociated with anything specifically iconic. While it’s true the lines do blur between each of these categories and any artwork you wear can’t help but communicate something about you and will aid in forming your image in some way, graphics in this group fall more under the idea of art for art’s sake.

Disclaimer: I make no claim of ownership of any photograph featured in this article. If you own copyrights to any of these images and would like to be credited here or have your image(s) removed from this site, please reach out to me here.

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