Why critic and collector Chris Vognar dreams of T-shirts


28 by CHRIS VOGNAR / styling by MARI HIDALGO / photograph by CHRIS PLAVIDAL

I dream of T-shirts. These nocturnal fantasies usually find me in some odd store stocked with the strangest, hard-to-find retro sports logos and book- and album-cover art, emblazoned on the softest fabrics imaginable — all in my size. Then I wake up, and, damn, I’m sad.
Then I put on a T-shirt, and I feel a little better.

Obsession isn’t too strong a word. I have firm opinions about what elevates a shirt from the mundane to the must-have. I seek shirts out everywhere I go, even, apparently, in my sleep. I scour websites in search of new finds. In the time between I wrote the last sentence and this one, I ordered a Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness shirt from the Penguin site ($28). I did it partially for narrative effect, but, man, I really wanted that shirt, and they were out of stock the last time I tried to order it.

I used to laugh at shopaholics. No longer. I own up to my addiction, and I’ve even come up with some cogent thoughts on its deep, dark crevices. A great T-shirt reflects the passions and personality of its wearer. Most of mine fall into a few basic categories: sports, music (primarily jazz and hip-hop) and literature. I’ve got the random movie or television tee, but most of them seem too — obvious. As any halfway fashionable soul knows, obviousness is a sin. That doesn’t mean every shirt has to be a riddle, but a touch of cleverness never hurts, and the least bit of obscurity can make for a fine conversation-starter. Example: Like most of the pop-culture universe, I worship at the church of Breaking Bad. But Walter White shirts are a dime a dozen. (Not literally. That would be a killer price.) So I scooped up a green Vamonos Pest shirt. If you’ve made it into the fifth season, you know Vamonos Pest is the extermination company front business that covers the White/Pinkman meth empire. If you don’t know that, the image of a cute cartoon roach running for its life under the company logo is pretty funny.

Inside-joke shirts are popular, and I own a couple. But they’re not really my thing. There are other ways to hit those oblique angles. I’m a huge Mavericks fan, but I’m more likely to rock a limited-edition DirkSwish logo or an old Jerry Stackhouse shirt than an official Nowitzki tee. Nowitzki actually sued the DirkSwish folks to stop using his likeness, but those aren’t the kinds of sports-shirt rules I care about. These are: Never wear a shirt from a team you hate, no matter how cool it looks. The more retro, the better. The two companies that have taken the most of my sports tee money: Ebbets Field Flannels, which specializes in minor league and Negro League gear, and Million Dollar Ballers, with its drawings of eyeless NBA icons. Tasteful, simple, and yes, aggressively hipster. That’s the rub: I don’t want to be aggressively hipster. Or do I? My T-shirt obsession smacks of a muted but quietly desperate need to be cool. I beam at the sound of “Nice shirt.” I suppose part of that is the critic in me, but there is also the need for approval that I believe drives all writers to write.

I loathe status brand names, especially the ones I can’t afford. I want to wear something slightly different, but sort of cool in a nerdy way. I don’t want to tally up the cash I’ve spent at redbubble.com, which sells shirts designed by all manner of individual artists. I’m a big fan of the Out of Print line, which features classic first-edition book-jacket cover art. (My collection thus far: Light in August, Native Son, Invisible Man, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, The Maltese Falcon, Metamorphosis, Ulysses, Don Quixote, Death of a Salesman). Pretentious? Absolutely. But I love books as aesthetic objects, and I only wear Out of Print shirts for books I’ve actually read.

Graphic design is crucial: layering of color, quality of print, and, in general, attention to detail. No iron-ons. A great shirt needs a degree of subtlety and a way with grace notes of design. Soft cotton helps, and it’s always a treat when an online order arrives with the perfect texture. I think of a quality T-shirt as an artistic expression of a casual sensibility, a comfortable way to say, “This is who I am. This is what I like. This is who I listen to, read or root for.” I wear them with sport coats, a look that elicits a fair share of Miami Vice jokes. I can take it. A great tee deserves a great jacket. And so I continue my quest for the perfect tee. It’s lurking out there somewhere, just waiting for me to buy it. And if I can’t find it, I can always dream it up.

CHRIS VOGNAR is an award-winning film critic at The Dallas Morning News and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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