“If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?” Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life (1978)
I hate it when people wear clothing that talks to you. Little children may get away with it because they have no say in the matter. Still, do I really have to learn the tiny tot whining for ChocoPops in her mother’s supermarket shopping cart is “Daddy’s Princess?” Just because Mommy — or whoever thought that toddler-size pink t-shirt with the sparkly crown on it was so darling — wants us to know Daddy adores his noisy three-year-old so much? The kid herself couldn’t care less what her t-shirt’s saying. What she’s thinking about is the chocolate cereal.
[Mandatory disclosure: When I first became a grandmother, I once purchased from a local coffee shop a very tiny orange t-shirt sized for a six-month-old that proclaimed, “Sleep Is for the Weak!” When his parents opened the package, they did laugh. However, I don’t know if they ever put it on the baby. In any event, it was soon outgrown.]
But what about the well developed adult woman in a t-shirt that proclaims across her developed parts: “Don’t even think of it!” What was she thinking of? Or the ones who want everyone standing behind them to know they get their car serviced at Gus’s Garage or buy their books at BookSmart or shop at Shop-Rite? Why have they turned themselves into unpaid walking billboards for the commercial enterprises of others? Do they really need a free t-shirt so badly?
Then there are the fans wearing an oversized replica of a favorite sports star’s shirt and number. They’re usually male, but not always. Who are they kidding? Am I really going to think they’re whoever it is, just because of the shirt? Or is the shirt an expression of solidarity with the star? Does Vinnie LeCavalier need to know they’re rooting for him — if they were ever so lucky as to pass him in the street while wearing his name and number 4? Does anyone else need that important information? (Not me, that’s for sure.) Perhaps it’s comforting to push into the stadium, beer can in hand, labeled as a member of the right flock of sheep: one of the LeCavalier or Cabral or Pineda fans, or the fans of the next great guy to save a game for the team.
There are very occasional and judicious exceptions to my ranting. During a trip to Greece shortly after I met Bill, I spotted a grey t-shirt hanging from a pushcart near a tourist spot in Athens with some unreadable Greek on its front and an English translation on its back. The English side declared, “All I know is that I know nothing. Socrates.” At that point in our relationship, I hadn’t yet ascertained Bill’s feelings about clothing that spoke, but wanted to bring him back a present and rather thought he might like this one. He did like it, although he mainly wore it around the house. As he sits in chairs a lot, or else lies down, and I still don’t know how to read Greek, that seemed a happy compromise.
However, my usually negative personal feelings about ready-to-wear with a message don’t matter. Other people’s clothing can talk till doomsday, at least in America — because the First Amendment says it can. Every kind of speech is protected. Even if deemed hateful. Or tasteless. Or distracting. Or isn’t spoken, but worn. I cannot impulsively tear from your body your offensive white short shorts with “No!” and “No!” imprinted on each cheek. Never mind the assault-and-battery part of it. Your two “No!”s have constitutional protection.
Of course we tend to forget what we’re saying when we don’t ourselves see what we say. Packing for the trip to Greece from which I brought back the Socrates t-shirt, I realized I needed something to protect my face from the sun. Having no bendable summer hats of my own, I looked for what my sons might have left behind when they grew up and moved away. And found — Red Sox caps and Red Sox caps and Red Sox caps! With perhaps just one thing in their favor: They were monosyllabic. All they said was “B.” (An unmistakeable capital “B,” bright red and edged in white.) I had no time for scruples, chose one and zipped up the suitcase.
Cut to the Acropolis in summer — crowded with bodies nearly immobilized in the overpowering heat, and with snatches of all the world’s languages in one’s ears. Suddenly I heard — slicing through the confusion with welcome clarity: “Hey! Boston! How ya doin’?” He was tall and sweating and grinning and young, and I was very glad to see him. We gave each other a high five, and parted forever. It was great. Thank you, son’s cap that exclaimed (in red) from the top of my head: “B!”
But suppose clothing speaks a foreign language? How do I feel about that? Assuming the clothing looks good to start with, the statement imprinted on it becomes a kind of design. Except to people who can understand what it says. Or who ask what it means. But you’d be surprised at how many people can’t, and don’t.
You know those “additional features” that are frequently appended to DVDs of classic movies, where surviving cast members recollect what it was like to be in the movie? A couple of summers ago, Bill and I watched the Criterion Collection DVD of “La Ronde,” made in black and white just before World War II. A French movie. In which everyone spoke French. (Criterion provides the subtitles.) One of the survivors, a very young man in the movie, was rather long in the tooth by the time of the additional feature, which had been shot in color. He sat in his garden wearing a faded yellow t-shirt that said, “Homme Inoubliable.” (Unforgettable Man.) He had a twinkle in his eye, and spoke entertainingly about making movie love to Danielle Darrieux, and I wanted his t-shirt. Yes, I did. Not exactly his, but something like it. Maybe black (black is always good), with long sleeves. And with two classy words in white italics across the front that almost no one would be able to read. I immediately ordered a long-sleeved black t-shirt online from Lands End. Bill did the rest.
If you don’t read French, you’ll just have to figure it out. And remember, Bill ordered the lettering. So it’s his statement, not mine.
In English, I remain the modest and unassuming person you’ve come to know. And sometimes like.