T-Shirts I Have Known

September 28, 2010 | 4 3 min read


I recently bought a t-shirt.  This is not exactly news, though my sartorial spending typically averages four or five dollars per year.  What was notable, however, was that it featured the art from the Nintendo game “Contra”—two gun-blasting mercenaries shadowed by a drooling, looming alien.  I later realized that I hadn’t bought such a shirt in years—and not just because it horrified my wife.  My drawers were once full of such tees, but through the endless clothing cycle, they’ve ceded to whites and blues.  I wonder where they’ve gone.

Remembering vanished shirts is a somewhat wistful thing.  Each one means so much, yet each will disappear.  In exchange for their service—absorbing our sweat, airing our interests, starting our conversations—the least we can do is offer them tribute.  Below, then, are five of my most deserving.

House of Pain (1993-1995)

“House of Pain” represented the nexus of three unfortunate trends: an infatuation with House of Pain, a growing allowance, and a need to go to malls (which also yielded such nuggets as “Big Johnson Erection Company,” “Big Johnson Beer,” and untold swimsuit posters).  Its purchase followed two that my mother confiscated: a Cypress Hill pot-leaf shirt and a Funkdoobiest tee, replete with smoking hooker.  Yes, I know.  My mother was a monster.

“House of Pain,” however, snuck past the censors, and I wore it with dubious pride.  To make my tastes even clearer, I bought a House of Pain hat; thank God they didn’t make pants.  Eventually, the faux-Heineken logo on its back tore from the fabric, and “House of Pain” was discarded.  Farewell, old friend, farewell.  I jump around for thee.

Miller Genuine Draft (1995-1998)

“Miller Genuine Draft” wasn’t a particular favorite, but it served a definite purpose: “Hey, look, everybody!  I’m drinking!”  Throughout the mid-nineties, I sported an array of such shirts, shilling for brands that I hadn’t actually drank: Rumple Minze, Red Stripe, Boone’s Farm, Dewar’s.  The idea was that I was “cool,” although I’m fairly sure I wasn’t.

Today, when I see a teen skulking in a Bud Light tee, I think, “Okay, little guy—you’ve had yourself a beer.  We get it.”  It takes hindsight to see the desperation of such shirts—and that they’re equivalent to wearing a Tampax tee because you’ve finally got your period.

Uff Da! (1997-2002)

As I was told a handful of times over its dazzling five-year run, “Uff Da!” was a Norwegian term of excitement; the shirt may have been the product of a small Wisconsin brewery.  Whatever its origin, I found it pleasingly elusive, cheerful but obscure.  It never failed to gain mention, and even The Bard took note: I wore it to a 1998 Bob Dylan show, at which I sat in the first row behind the stage.  Every so often, Dylan turned to acknowledge the fans at his back, and at one point—possibly during “Joey”—he turned and spotted “Uff Da!”  As a Minnesota native, he was likely familiar with the phrase, and its 200-point font would’ve been large enough to see—even from the stage, through the glaring banks of light.  There was a glint in his eye, and he gave me a nod, as if to say, “Yes, my son.  ‘Uff Da!’  ‘Uff Da!’ ”

He might have been looking at someone else, though.

Matthew’s Bar Mitzvah Was a Big Hit! (1997)

I never knew Matthew, and I don’t know if his Bar Mitzvah was really a hit.  And that was exactly the point.  For half a decade, my fashion goal was to stockpile the most ironic, snort-inducing shirts I could find.  I haunted musty Goodwill racks, ragged yard-sale piles, the drawers of sleeping roommates.  The result was a parade of slugs, cheese, and terrible bands.  One pictured Howie Mandel; another, Jimmy Carter.

I must have assumed that this conveyed an ornate intellect; as Louis Menand recently wrote in The New Yorker, “Part of the enjoyment people take in parody is the enjoyment of feeling intelligent.  Not everyone gets the joke.”  Thankfully, though, the joke got stale, and the phase eventually passed (possibly swept off by Graydon Carter’s “death of irony”).  But remnants do remain.  On hot days, I can still be seen in a kelly-green Detlef Schrempf jersey.  Part of me thinks it’s funny.

Blue Shirt (2008-Present)

Like “Miller Genuine Draft,” I mention “Blue Shirt” for its wider personal meaning.  After all the rap and beer and irony, I’ve come to value simplicity in my shirts.  There’s enough static in the world, enough impotent distraction.  Our tastes are not so riveting.  This turn towards plainness is likely an effect of aging—an erosion of cultural interest and a shift of priorities.  Whatever its cause, such shirts are my present, and will likely be my future.  I can’t picture myself in a nursing home, dribbling egg down a novelty tee.  Call it a benefit of growing older.

(Image: Ringflash Tshirt Blank Template, image from geishaboy500’s photostream)

is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.


  1. Wonderful post.

    I have spent some long hours pondering my lost T-shirt kingdom. I do when I lost most of them and that was when I started teaching high school. There was a part of me that simply couldn’t stand to be in the same shirts as my students.

    It was not an easy transition. I started buying T-shirts for younger cousins and siblings because I needed to live vicariously through them.

    Now that I’m teaching college I fear I will never again have the chance to proudly display my once great T-shirt collection.

    Two holdovers that I still wear on the sly – 1995 Def Leppard concert shirt and a shirt bearing a picture of Shakespeare’s face with the script “Prose before Hos”. I generally try to wear that at conferences that are far from campus.

  2. I too was a victim of the ironic thrift store t-shirt phase. In high school I visited secondhand shops weekly, sifting through the racks. My favorites were religious oriented family reunion t-shirts, and t-shirts advertising boys’ sports teams (think T-Ball, youth large). A boy scout uniform shirt was one of prized possessions. I would wear these t-shirts daily, with men’s carpenter jeans, blond skunk streaks in my hair, and chunky librarian glasses, and wonder “why don’t any boys want to date me?” One day I looked in the mirror and realized I was 20 years old and I just wanted to dress like a normal person. Now I stick to solid colors, maybe the occasional stripe.

  3. You had me at Funkdoobiest. I jumped around for this article. And now, I cannot get the dang song out of my head. It will follow me on my EL ride home, where I will be checking out other people’s tees and wondering where my FAVE Green Eggs and Ham one went. The one where Sam I Am is at a Kegger. Best Wildwood Tee I ever bought. Senior week flashbacks. Thanks for forcing years of memories to the forefront and the damn jingle won’t go away.

    BTW. I had a House of Pain sticker on the door of my JC Penney stereo. The one with the faux cork board paneled wood, a Record Player, A NEW CD PLAYER, and duel cassette tape. Question, how many mixed tapes did you make while sporting HOP? How many do you still have?

  4. My husband’s blue Atari logo t-shirt. He had it when we started dating 7.5 years ago, and it’s still chugging along. The logo has started fraying like a wine that has started aging. Nicely.

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