The Life and Times of T-Shirts

Terry Caesar considers the real meanings behind clothing with college and university names.
July 13, 2006

I go to the gym to exercise wearing a maroon T-shirt from the University of Minnesota. I've had it for years, long before I ever visited the campus. Then I come home, shower, and put on another grey T-shirt from Montevallo. Again, I've had it for many years -- and I've never visited the actual campus. I just trusted there was one, somewhere, until a few years ago, when I chanced to learn where.

First response: disappointment. I never cared about the "real" Montevallo, any more than I did about the real Minnesota. Indeed, Montevallo has -- or had -- one immense advantage over  Minnesota: It could be the product of pure fancy, as if in fact it was a college of the mind or the imagination. Its location was nowhere, like More's Utopia.

Maybe it lacked a football team. Maybe it didn't even have an administration building! My inclination (just to use this word) toward college and university sportswear goes back to my sophomore year in college when I decided to order a sweatshirt from the University of New Hampshire, in order to substantiate my possession of a false driver's license from that state.

I no longer remember how I came by the license. But I still remember opening the package and pulling out the brand new, navy blue sweatshirt, short sleeved. New Hampshire! A pretty exotic place if you're going to school in Southern California. The sweatshirt never really helped with the license, which was such a poor imitation that I had to throw it away after a waitress at a pizza joint refused to accept it. The sweatshirt, though, was an immediate hit. I felt special wearing it. Nobody else had a genuine short-sleeved sweatshirt from New Hampshire.

I never claimed to have gone there. If anybody, seeing me, wanted to think so, fine. If in one sense wearing the sweatshirt was a means to call attention to myself, in a more important sense, though, it was a way to efface myself. People saw the shirt, not me. Wearing a sweatshirt from the University of New Hampshire, after all, declares some sort of affiliation with the university but does not specify its nature insofar as any individual wearer is concerned.

Fast forward fifteen years. I am standing inside the front entrance to the University of Oregon library. I am wearing a T-shirt from the University of Vermont. I bought it there, two or three summers earlier. Suddenly, a girl steps up to me and says, "Wow, Vermont. Do you go there?" I'm shocked, embarrassed, confused. "Well, no," I manage, "I don't really go there. I just, er, like the place." The girl just stares at me, and then turns away, disappointed.

How could she have assumed that just because I was wearing a T-shirt from a particular university I went there? But the more I thought about it, the more disingenuous this objection became. How could she not have assumed this? The T-shirt was a signifier after all, and what it signified was the most standard meaning, not the most wayward one: I was wearing a T-shirt from the University of Vermont because I had been or was a student or a teacher there.

Fast forward six more years. I am teaching at a provincial university in China. Alas (to me), the university has no T-shirts, sweatshirts, or sportswear of any kind. But I can wear a little circular red pin from China's railroad, given to me by a student who used to work for it as a conductor. He gladly got me a pin but can't quite understand why I would want to wear it. No Chinese can. "Why do you wear the pin if you don't work for the railroad?" Although everybody is too polite to say so, some undoubtedly think me just plain stupid. The T-shirts I've brought along, in particular the orange one from the University of Florida I'm always wearing, don't begin to clarify the matter.

How to explain to the Chinese that in the West membership in organizations is not as stable or fixed, as in China? Not only do people change jobs or affiliations. They identify with groups, teams, or institutions to which they do not actually belong. Nay, meaning itself is not so fixed. Signification itself can be (as theorists say) "floating," and an individual can be content to drift in various ways among several different organizations, sometimes ironically, sometimes fervently, at all times ludically. How to explain to the Chinese that wearing the railroad pin is to me a form of imaginative play? To them it is a means of employment identification, period.

By the time I came to teach in China I had succeeded in accumulating more college and university T-shirts and sweatshirts than I could wear. Many were given to me by a friend who was a salesman for a sportswear company. He traveled to campus bookstores all over the South as his company tried to take advantage of how so many other products -- ranging from coffee cups to sweaters and jackets -- were being merchandised in order to take advantage of the fact that institutions of higher education had become "brands."

Some institutions, like Montevallo, still mean something to me. (If only as an "empty" sign; I have another T-shirt, from Harding University, wherever that is.) Some, like Minnesota, don't mean anything. (So why keep this one? The color? The fit?) Yet by now I've gotten rid of more T's and sweats than I've owned. The shirt from Harvard -- that transcendental signifier -- shrunk. But I never liked the improbable strawberry color. The shirt from the University of Alabama was discarded because I never felt any emotional connection to the state. My beloved short-sleeved New Hampshire sweatshirt? It just basically disintegrated.

I still keep too many, one from the University of Washington, which I attended as a grad student (but the shirt no longer fits comfortably), or another from the University of Michigan, which I bought in Ann Arbor (during a moment when it suddenly felt like an improbable foreign village). Perhaps what's changed is not so much my relation to these items as their relation to the society at large. Some years ago in Pennsylvania I saw a kid wearing a UCLA T-shirt. As a teenager, I watched the Bruin basketball team on local TV. UCLA represents my oldest academic affiliation. How in the present to compare my lived experience with this kid, for whom UCLA represented -- well, exactly what?

Idle question. Both of us are ourselves products of an economy where everything is now up for grabs, ready for sale, and already in play, including the paraphernalia of colleges and universities. It's as if the imaginative identification once possible to make with these institutions on a personal level has already been accomplished by the economy itself. UCLA? It's famous. No need to concern yourself with more than this, unless you're concerned about its possible style or fashion relation to other famous institutions, much less to professional sports teams or the very latest rock stars. UCLA? Just finally a name brand on -- or of -- yet another T-shirt, like Prada or Tommy Hilfiger.

To put the same point differently: I've lately seen UCLA T-shirts being worn on the streets of Japan, during the time I was teaching at a Japanese university which lacked any sportswear of its own featuring an institutional logo. (At the five foreign universities at which I've taught, only the one in Brazil had a T-shirt with such a logo -- just one T-shirt, with merely the university's initials, amid a profusion of T-shirts filled with political slogans and poems.) How to explain the lack? The powerful global presence of American popular culture? The absence of any comparable cultural space in these respective nations where colleges and universities could manifest themselves? Or are institutions of higher education in most other countries simply more exclusive and remote -- literally walled and gated -- than any of their counterparts in the United States?

In any case, many are the individual ruses regarding T's and sweats. But they are not infinite, not even to an American, and they all abide in history. The exotic University of New Hampshire sweatshirt of my undergraduate years was only possible at an earlier historical moment, where the referent of the garment remained so to speak in place. Today, even if it remains true that you can still only buy the same garment through the UNH campus bookstore, you can do so in an instant online. Moreover, it is even conceivable you can come upon either a copy or the genuine article at a used clothing store in your area, even if your area happens to be in Texas. And what would a UNH T-shirt signify in Texas? You name it. Maybe just a dis-identification with the oppressive burnt orange UT T-shirts.

So we reach a point where college and university sportswear, once so special and institution-specific, now signifies everything and nothing at the same time. A few years ago I taught a couple of classes at Palo Alto College. At the beginning of the first semester, I almost bought a T-shirt -- on sale -- at the tiny bookstore. But then I paused. Was it because the identity of the community college was just too obscure, or else too real? Why didn't its possible confusion with Stanford strike me as amusingly ironic (as it usually would)? I don't know. But I failed to buy a T-shirt. It just seemed beside the point. What is the point? Perhaps the current American imperative to buy a T-shirt in order to confirm anything -- your team's victory, your trip's destination, your favorite this or that, the proud significance of you, you, you.

I'm still not sure what I've been doing throughout my adult life in accumulating college and university T-shirts from near and far. But it hasn't been primarily a form of self-assertion. Instead, I believe, it's been repeatedly fantasizing an identification with all sorts of institutions, both real and imagined. I haven't wanted to study or teach at any one. Somehow, I've wanted to claim them all, or, perhaps better, have each one claim me.

However, this only works if signification remains, well, purely academic. No more. Years ago in Brazil I saw an apparently homeless beggar wearing a filthy, pocket-marked T-shirt that read, Harlem University. Who created this T-shirt? Why? Could it have represented an object of fantasy to the man, whether or not he knew there is no such institution? Or was it something he just picked up on the street?

Today, all our T-shirts are subject to such questions -- the more so, the more globally marketed. Furthermore, the identifications they declare -- including the academic ones -- are now prey to all manner of ironies. Our personal imaginations can't govern them all, even if we are pleased to recall a time when such a thing felt possible.


Terry Caesar's last column was about dealing with unacceptable student behavior.


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