Tuesday, 10 January 2012

An indie-kid's madeleine

Not a promising starting image is it, but my Curve shirt got me thinking. 'Ou sont les t-shirts d'antan?', as Proust would have said if he'd had a decent record shop and a student loan in the heady days of the early-to-mid-1990s rather than some mouldy old biscuits and some unresolved 'issues'.

Band t-shirts were the staple of my wardrobe then: apart from some regrettable stripy hippy shirts, I expressed what passed for my identity through the medium of cheap XL tops stamped with the usually not very imaginative names of a string of mostly second-rate bands, in accordance with the rituals of my tribe. In some cases, the shirts have outlived the bands by over a decade: I have and still wear a particularly good Gorky's Zygotic Mynci shirt depicting various beard styles (I shall take a picture for you tonight).

The collection is a reminder of youthful enthusiasms, of a social context, of various design cultures, but also - sadly - of the inexorable growth of my guts. At first I was thin (my diet was largely carrots), and wore tiny skinny-fit shirts. Then I got fat, and voluminous drapery was the order of the day… And yet I have so few of these shirts left, and so little enthusiasm for buying more. At the time, buying the t-shirt (official from within the gig venue if I had money, cheap rip-off from the pavement outside if I didn't) was compulsory, along with the 2 picture discs with postcards which was obviously superior to buying one 7" single or - spit - a CD. Ugh. For some reason, all my anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist instincts were suspended whenever some cheap cotton promotional material hove into view.

They've virtually all gone now… my Ash shirt (try this blast of pop fun), the Gene ('Haunted By You') one, the skinny blue Bluetones one with silver foil lettering (listen to this), the font-tastic Elastica top ('2:1', oh yes), the pale-blue Belle and Sebastian 'Study at Stow' and Tigermilk tops (try 'Electronic Renaissance'), the glaring Stereolab T (check out 'K-Stars'), the Super Furry Animals 'Fuzzy Logic' top and a very poor white one with the SFA logo on each nipple (you'll like this one), the Catatonia one ('Sweet Catatonia'), and all the others I can't even remember now (help me out, eye-witnesses). I have a horrible suspicion about a Levellers ('Battle of the Beanfield') shirt and a Manics fleece (long story involving Mogwai - who 'Fear Satan' - and rain: listen to 'La Tristessa Durera' instead). All I'm left with is a Melt Banana (here 'celebrating' 'White Christmas') one which I've never worn because alcohol misleadingly persuaded me at the stall that I wasn't a porky git, the Gorky's top and my gifted Curve one. And a big pile of nerd shirts: science puns, one with Shakespeare reading 'prose before hos', a few book-related ones including a beautiful raven made up of Poe's poem, and some fencing-related stuff. And one with the Back to the Future DeLorean crashing into the Tardis, of which I'm particularly proud.

Are these things culturally significant? The internet says mostly no: I wish I'd taken pictures of these lost artefacts, because nobody else has. They were part of a culture, in which belonging was important, and it's a forgotten phase. It was fascinating to see high street clothing stores selling shirts for bands which buyers didn't listen to - Iron Maiden shirts suddenly became mainstream, for instance, as the band t-shirt became a signifier divorced from what it previously signified: belonging to an exclusive tribe, maintaining and developing individuality by being the same, and a host of other subtle meanings. Buying the shirt was a way to announce your sophistication, or your rejection of mainstream values. It was also a kind of education: the aesthetics of the shirt were often a way in to the art-school tastes many of the bands I liked had picked up.

Further reading: Wendy Fonarow's Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music and the fine My Band T-Shirt Tumblr.

PS. Why was this mainly a male thing?


ed said...

The Bluetones were underrated. Granted, they were never great, but they were never terrible either (...or they were terrible in small amounts and great in small amounts. I'm not sure).

I'm never throwing out my Breeders' 'Safari' shirt, even though I'll never fit into it again.

The Plashing Vole said...

I still love the Breeders. Saw them at ATP a couple of years ago.

I think I still have a PWEI shirt, and an Atilla the Stockbroker one.

The Plashing Vole said...

And Nightingales and Wedding Present shirts.