Seven seriously f’d up t-shirts that somehow made their way onto shelves
Joy Division was a great, albeit dark, new wave band beloved by glum people the world over. So dark, in fact, that its members named themselves after the sex slaves of Nazi Germany. Which is why it was a bit of a surprise that in 2012 Disney ripped off the Peter Saville “star wave” graphic from the band’s Unknown Pleasures album to make a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. “Few stars have made bigger waves than Mickey!” blared the upbeat description on the Disney webstore. They pulled the t-shirts from stores a day later.
Abercrombie & Fitch has made some horrible PR blunders; their CEO has publicly stated that the company didn’t want ugly people wearing their brand, and the chain has been sued for racial discrimination in their hiring practices. But one still has to wonder how in the hell this gruesome foursome of racist t-shirts made it to market in 2002. Did the company top brass sit around in a room, brainstorming the best way to horrify the world’s biggest ethnic demographic? “Listen guys, these shirts aren’t offensive enough, send ’em back to the moron laboratory.”
In the 19th century, the white man got it in his head that America was a godly free-for-all, so he slaughtered millions of indigenous Americans who had not been granted such divine squatters’ rights. They gave the genocide a sporty name: “Manifest Destiny.” It sounds cool, right? I mean –Who wouldn’t want to manifest their destiny? Men’s designer Mark McNairy also thought so and emblazoned the front of his 2012 GQ for GAP collaboration with the phrase, drawing the ire of Native American groups.
In 2011, JCPenney’s “I’m Too Pretty to Do Homework…” shirt employed some good old-fashioned, traditional sexist drivel to drive home the important lesson that women are mindless objects. Irate moms blew up the Internet in a furious flurry of e-complaints, and JCPenney discontinued the shirts shortly thereafter The online marketing blurb read: “Who has time for homework when there’s a new Justin Bieber album out?” Fair question, I guess.
"New arrivals... straight outta Compton,” read the tweet. The only problem? Forever21, a fast fashion retailer found mainly in America’s suburban malls, bears no particular connection to the “City of Compton”—Compton, of course, being a predominantly black city near South Los Angeles. In fact, Forever21 was so oblivious to their bumbling appropriation that they styled a white hipster in the shirts, inspired by a track from the classic gangsta rap group N.W.A. Rap fans of all backgrounds united in racial harmony to ridicule the shirts on social media, leading Forever21 to yank the line from their website.
Urban Outfitters is so good at creating questionable design ideas that it has to be some ploy just to drum up controversy. Cases in point: their “Eat Less” tees, their shirts that glamorize teen drinking (“I Drink You’re Cute”), and their culturally disrespectful “Navajo” print underwear. But barely anyone had heard of the hip Philadelphia start-up in 2004 when they released their “Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl” shirt, complete with stereotypical money-grubbing iconography like shopping bags and dollar signs. The Anti-Defamation League went berserk on them, and Urban Outfitters reluctantly removed the fakakta imagery.
Earlier this year, in anticipation of the upcoming World Cup, Adidas released a t-shirt featuring a buxom cartoon woman, a soccer ball, and the slogan: “Lookin’ to Score.” The shirt raised hackles in the tournament’s host country of Brazil, where locals, seeing a dehumanizing, oversexed stereotype imposed on Brazilian women once again, did not appreciate the joke. Even Dilma Rousseff, the current (and first female) president of Brazil, felt the need to weigh in, taking to Twitter to condemn the extant culture of sexual exploitation. Adidas recalled the shirt.
But this shirt, crude as it may be, is part of a long, rich history of tone-deaf work in the t-shirt game. Dumb ideas somehow regularly make it through the corporate meat grinder, down the product development garbage chute, past a team of marketing monkeys, and on to you, the consumer. Just making it past so many eyes makes these shirts incredible artifacts of bureaucratic malfunction, a point reflected in the booming secondary market for these offensive rarities.
So here are some of the best, worst t-shirts—seven of the most egregious lightweight cotton failures ever to be yanked from the shelves of your local mall.
Illustrations by Alexis Markavage