WHAT IS AN "ATTITUDE TEE"?
An attitude tee is a tee shirt with words printed on it to express the wearer's attitude generally or to make a cute joke. Sometimes the attitude is expressed in a complete sentence, like "Disco Sucks." Sometimes, though, it is just a single word or even sound effect: "Obey" or "Meh".
NOT POPULAR WITH SCHOOLS...
Though very popular in the tee-shirt wearing crowd, which in America is nearly everyone*, attitude tees get little love in schools and workplaces, where they are often banned. Many dress codes prohibit any visible words on clothing, sometimes citing reasons like preventing the envy and strife that expensive brand names and logos incite, or how it's easier to ban all words than to try to police the messages in them. Even band names on tee shirts cause problems in schools, where the kids may know all kinds of ugly subtext about that band but the teachers don't.
* What? I own a tee shirt! One. I wear it for hiking and painting and cleaning the bathroom.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THAT?
Sometimes nothing is wrong with it. Like everyone, I get a good chuckle out of seeing a funny tee shirt now and then. And much like the perfect greeting card, finding the perfect tee shirt can be quite fun for the people expressing themselves.
A tee shirt is a limited platform for communication, though. There isn't much room for context creation and no room for reply. For instance, a while back I started seeing shirts (and bumper stickers and stickers) with just the imperative "Obey". Obey what? Obey traffic laws? Obey my mother? Obey the talking garden gnome on the Travelocity commercials? There's no context, so the "message" is a shot in the dark. So as the reader, I read the word "obey", ask myself what it is I'm being told to obey, realize that it's impossible to know, and decide the person wearing the tee shirt didn't care enough to communicate a full message, so I can disregard the partial message. Then I am left feeling irked that I wasted my time trying to understand nonsense. As if there isn't enough nonsense in the world already!
(I just looked it up, and apparently "Obey" has a meaning that it takes 215 words to explain, and even then it's mostly a question mark. It's supposed to make you question... things people tell you to do. Unless they tell you to buy an "Obey" shirt, in which case you'd better do it to prove how "woke" you are. Of course, I've always been weird; maybe other people have a different reaction to Shepard Fairey's art, and think there's deep philosophical import in a sticker that says "Obey".)
Other times, the message printed on the shirt is offensive, like Walmart's infamous drunken Irish tees. In such a case, is it fair to say "it's just a shirt; it doesn't mean anything"? I think not. It means what it says. If I said something unkind, you wouldn't say "it's just a vocalization proceeding out of her mouth, it doesn't mean anything"! You'd hold me accountable for what I said.
For me, the biggest problem with an attitude tee is the risk associated with communicating incompletely. Does the person with a "meh" shirt think life is meh? Or their tee shirt is meh? Or I am meh? Does the person wearing the "I'm So Drunk I'm Irish" shirt really think all Irish people are drunks? Or is he Irish and thinks it's funny? Or does he think St. Patrick's Day is about insobriety? If he anti-Irish or pro-drinking or anti-Catholic? We don't know, because the tee shirt doesn't provide enough context, so we have to interpret based on what else he says or does, or where he is when he wears it.
And this brings us back to the first lady. Her jacket read: "I really don't care. Do U?" Care about what? With no context, it could mean anything:
'I really don't care [about life]. Do U?'
'I really don't care [about people writing on my back]. Do U?'
'I really don't care [about spelling]. Do U?'
But the jacket was chosen and worn in a context. So it's natural to assume the context contributes to the meaning:
'I really don't care [about this visit to migrant children in a shelter]. Do U?'
Her husband later said the jacket was really directed at the media, saying she didn't care what "fake news" sources said about her. But that interpretation doesn't make any sense, because she wasn't wearing it to a press conference or a media event, she was wearing it to visit children. The context was the visit not the media.
If teenagers wear poorly chosen shirts with confusing messages, I give them the benefit of the doubt. They're new to presenting themselves to the world, and lack understanding of how their messages may be received. With Melania Trump, though, I give her credit for knowing how to dress, and since she does know what words mean in context, the jacket was unkind. (But I'm sure she really doesn't care what I think!)
ME AND TEES
I joked above that I do--no, I REALLY DO--own a tee shirt. That was true, but it's also true that tee shirts are not my style at all. And if I were going to wear a tee shirt, I'd prefer one with no words on it. I don't like the incompleteness of tee shirt messages or the limitations of having only one message on display. After all, what if my attitude in the morning is "meh" and my attitude in the evening is "Disco Sucks"?! ;)
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