Powerless over T-Shirts

I admitted I was powerless over T-shirts a long time ago but that hasn’t stopped the inexorable growth of my collection. I don’t know how many T-shirts I have. My T-shirts don’t want to be counted. Maybe they’re afraid that if I know how many I have, I will throw some of them out. I could no more do this than I could torch all my paper files or wipe my hard drive with no backup.

My T-shirts are my history, at least my history since the mid-1970s. My earliest one is from the University of Sussex, where I did a year of graduate work in 1974–75. I’ve at least four from 1976: one from the ’76 Festival of American Folklife and three from the campaign to ratify the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment, for which I was an active volunteer. “Vote Yes on Question #1” they say.

Nearly all my T-shirts are wearable. Even the oldest ones. When you have too many T-shirts, you don’t wear any of them out. When they don’t wear out and you keep buying more, their number tends to increase.

When I bring out my summerwear and put winterwear away, I go through my T-shirts and pick out the two or three dozen that’ll be in that summer’s rotation. Here are some of those that made the cut this year.

From left:

  • WUMB-FM 20th anniversary shirt.
  • (Top) Smedley’s Book Shop muscle shirt. I have several shirts from now-defunct bookstores. Smedley’s was in Ithaca, New York. I don’t have nearly enough muscle shirts, so they get worn every year. All of them come from the 1980s, and nearly all of them are lavender. In my bookselling days, lavender outsold other colors by at least two to one. Can’t imagine why . . .
  • (Bottom) If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Ride It. This is a horsey in-joke: Morgans, Andalusians, and Friesians are among the “baroque” breeds. Conventional wisdom says you need a Warmblood to do dressage. This T-shirt was created by a Morgan owner who believes otherwise. I liked it so much I got two of them: same slogan, different graphic.
  • Not a T-shirt exactly but close enough: a long T that I wear around the apartment in warm weather, and sleep in on those rare occasions when I need a nightgown. It came from a women’s craft shop in Chicago, ca. 1991. I’ve never regretted splurging on two. The other one is black.
  • Wintertide Coffeehouse 1992. The graphic is by Washington Ledesma. It says “Espresso Yourself.” My Wintertide 1991 shirt is almost identical. I plucked it from the Five Corners flood in the wake of the No-Name Nor’easter in late October of that year and Tony Lombardi, Wintertide manager, said I could keep it.
  • Gaylactic Network, a network of gay and lesbian science fiction fans. From sometime in the 1990s, a decade in which I went to lots of cons.

  • Red one at far left: Ladies’ Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society. A feminist classic.
  • See what I mean about the lavender muscle shirts? This dragon design, IIRC from Snake + Snake out in Virginia, was popular at Lammas Bookstore when I worked there in the early 1980s.
  • WisCon 14. My very first WisCon, in 1991. Hal Davis bought me the shirt. I think that makes him an enabler, don’t you?
  • Another feminist classic: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Got that right, Emma Goldman.
  • The Black Hog. Sounds like . . . ? You got it. Around 1991, before the Black Dog Tavern turned into an empire but its signature T-shirt was well on the way to becoming a terrible cliché, Peter Hall created a T with the black dog logo upside down. The BD promptly sued for trademark infringement. Hall took the upside-down dog shirts off the market. One of the great regrets of my life is that I didn’t move fast enough to get one. Shortly thereafter, Hall’s Basement Designs released two more shirts: the Black Hog and the Dead Dog. This is the Hog. The Dog is a canine skeleton. I’ve got one of those too. The BD sued Hall over them as well, but IIRC the judge said they were parodies and there’s no law against that. One of the especially delicious results of the brouhaha was that it came to light that the Douglases, owners of the Black Dog, had only paid $25 to the woman who designed the logo that was on its way to making them millions. That’s Douglas as in the late McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft. These were not poor struggling entrepreneurs. As I recall it, they were embarrassed into giving the designer more money.

Yes, I do have clean underwear; I just don’t hang it on the line. I am too lazy and I don’t have enough clothespins. I use a drying rack instead. Here is my new still-life: “Clean Underwear with Marigolds.”


About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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9 Responses to Powerless over T-Shirts

  1. Patsy says:

    Oh my Gosh! Its wonderful to know that there is someone else “out there” who wears nice cotton “underpants” as my Gramma used to call them. I’m of an age (and size) where those “thingies” these younger women wear, would simply embarrass the hell out of an ER doctor, should, “God Forbid” I end up in there someday. LOL Keep up the t-shirt addiction – better that then some of the others out there. I LOVE t-shirts BUT find it hard get them in my size – I am Big and buy Bigger for comfort (and possible shrinkage).


    • Life is way too short for uncomfortable underwear! Underpants that ride up your butt, underpants that dig into your skin, underpants that don’t breathe — yecchhh. A few years ago I tossed most of my very tatty, mostly white undies and ordered about $80 worth from Jockey, in all sorts of colors. They’re holding up well. 🙂


  2. Hal Davis says:

    “WisCon 14. My very first WisCon, in 1991. Hal Davis bought me the shirt. I think that makes him an enabler, don’t you?”

    Two things:

    1) I hated when the recovery community gave “enabler” a negative context. What’s wrong with “Ready, willing and enabled”?

    2) I think I also staked you to an impressive shawl during a spirited Tiptree auction. Now *that* was an act of friendship.

    OK, three:

    3) When are you returning to WisCon? Place is megaduller without you.


    • 1) If I wanted to give up my T-shirt addiction, then enabling would be a bad thing. Since I don’t, enabling is the same as facilitating, and that’s a good thing, no?
      2) IIRC you offered to contribute to that item — a really impressive and gaudy long jacket — but I stubbornly insisted that I could pay for it myself and I did. That jacket doesn’t get out half enough. I keep thinking about donating it back to the auction.
      3) Every year I think about it, and every year I’m too broke and/or too busy to do it. Also I’m totally out of the f/sf loop so I wouldn’t have anything to talk about. Would love to revisit Madison, though.


      • Hal Davis says:

        2) Yes. I staked you to an amount above your limit. Don’t think it got there. Tiptree auction would love to have it back. Packed with history.

        3) Madison. Worth a visit, even if WisCon is not a distraction.


  3. Susanna…I would like a print of “Still Life With Marigolds” please. Better yet if it were printed on a Tee Shirt…You could sell them at the Chillmark flea market.


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