Retrowacktive: The Most Awful Shirt in the History of Clothing (circa 1972-1976)
JAPECAKE BEEFCAKE: It’s Guns ’n’ Rashes for Japey as he shows off his
Skittles-and-crossword puzzle physique in the Most Awful Shirt in the History of Clothing.
Antipersipirant by Mennen. Anti-itch cream by Gold Bond.
I BELIEVE IT WAS VOLTAIRE who said: “The safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear from . . .” Oh, screw it. I’m not here to share the kind of inspiration that might transform our dysfunctional, materialistic society into the best of all possible worlds. I’m here to get real about buying shirts at secondhand stores. There’s a reason that shirts at secondhand stores end up at secondhand stores. People don’t give away good shirts. They keep them. They wear them. The shirts that go into the Salvation Army drop box, or are roughly pushed out of a moving car, Mafia-style, onto the blacktop behind the Goodwill, are the shirts no one wants. The Brooks Brothers Black Fleece Bengal Stripe Oxford Button-Down Shirt with Mitered Cuffs with a telltale stain resulting from the poorly choreographed handoff of a loose-lidded jar of Grey Poupon from one Rolls-Royce to another. The melon-hued Izod factory second featuring an alligator instead of a crocodile over the pocket. The homemade Grateful Dead tie-dye tee previously worn by an ungrateful, and dead, person.
As a habitual habitué of such establishments, where one man’s trash is another man’s refuse, Japey has occasionally encountered gently worn apparel of unusual note, not to mention odor. However, one recent find in particular proved to be of such breathtaking significance as to merit a hiatus of several weeks (spent on “research” and winkingly executed “finger quotes”), followed by a feverish burst of activity to bring you the present account, which means the account you are reading, not an account that comes with a gift. Such is the weighty responsibility that comes with a discovery of such momentous import. It is a discovery that changed my life, and is about to change yours. It is the revelation, between a rack of used bowling balls and a pile of broken VHS tape rewinders, of a shirt so awful that, in a fit of spiteful, jealous rage, Saint John the Baptist rent his hair shirt in twain, and lost his security deposit. So awful that the shirt’s original Twitter account, “mostawfulshirt,” was deemed insufficiently descriptive of its awfulness, and was therefore discarded in favor of “therealmostawfulshirt.” But here in the real world, where we use our words, with spaces in between, we simply call it The Most Awful Shirt in the History of Clothing.
No doubt some of you will instantly contest such a bold claim, perhaps based on your own exceedingly poor judgment in selecting the shirt you are now wearing, unless you’re currently topless, in which case, gross, you’re in a public library, and have a little consideration for those of us trying to watch Storage Wars on Hulu. So what really makes Japey’s Awful Shirt the most awfulific? Let’s weigh the evidence.
IMMORAL FIBERS: Japey’s own copy of The AF Encyclopedia of Textiles.
This telephone-book-sized book, back when telephone books were telephone-book
sized, and an actual thing, remains his go-to tome for fabric-based humor.
Polyester. Like most of you, the first resource I turn to in evaluating the true awfulnicity of an Awful Shirt is my copy of The AF Encyclopedia of Textiles, second edition, by the editors of American Fabrics Magazine (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1972), because the first edition sucks, amirite? Holla!
Here’s a little of what the editors have to say of polyester, the sole (“100%”) component of this Awful Shirt: “The . . . more recent method [for producing polyester] is continuous polymerization, which rests upon the reaction of terephthalic acid with ethylene glycol. Whatever system is used, polyethylene terephthalate is produced.”
That’s right, polyethelyene terephthalate! No wonder polyester is known as the “Fiber of Love!” But let’s skip to a more pertinent passage: “Polyester was the fastest growing U.S. fiber in the 1960s. . . . The polyester fiber is an extremely resilient and springy fiber. It has the ability to spring back to its original position, wet or dry—regardless of the twisting or crushing it may undergo. It is a smooth, crisp fiber that keeps its shape even in damp, muggy weather. Fabrics of all polyester fibers do not droop. . . . It is a thermoplastic fiber. This means that once the fiber is set to a shape by the application of heat it stays that way. . . .”
Based on a carefully controlled test wearing, all of this appears to be true enough. It is springy, though so is spring, and a lot of people die in spring. But what the editors fail to mention in their almost certain non-polyester-industry-subsidized modesty is that in both appearance and tactility, wearing polyester (at least in the present example) is something akin to donning a garment made from the pot-scrubbing side of one of those two-layered kitchen sponges, producing an effect that might well be described as involuntary exfoliation. Also overlooked, apropos of the “application of heat,” is the fact that should you have the misfortune to be caught in a fire while wearing a 100% polyester shirt, it will, in all likelihood, inseparably melt into your skin like a marshmallow in a properly made s’more.
The early 1970s. While extensive research has failed to pinpoint a date for this Awful Shirt, certain characteristics—the flaring, faux-layered collar, the predominance of earth tones (remember when “mushroom” was a color?), vague, painful childhood memories—lead Japey to narrow the shirt’s likely heyday to circa 1972–1976, when diet soda was sweetened with saccharine, and it was considered perfectly acceptable for a man to wear shoes that matched the powder blue or dusty rose hue of his rented prom tux. Let’s face it: the only lastingly great things to come from the early 1970s were Maude and the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. But shirts? Not unless they were being worn by Charo, hoochie-coochily, on The Mike Douglas Show. Man, what a lot of adverbs.
MEDIUM UNCOOL: As seen on the label, K-mart’s curious erstwhile logo
incorporated one and a half “woman” symbols, stacked totem pole–style,
reflecting the store’s pioneering friendly stance toward
indigenous lesbians of the Pacific Northwest.
K-mart. The Awful Shirt’s original retailer—nay, perpetrator—is clearly identified on the label. Perhaps nothing needs to be said of K-mart’s dubious reputation as a fashion trendsetter. This was, after all, the establishment where, at the time the shirt was sold, one might have also enjoyed a “submarine sandwich” (= mass of vaguely identifiable processed meat, heavy on bologna, served in a sort of hot dog bun and dispensed in a clear plastic bag) from the in-store “deli” (= refrigerated glass case manned by a sullen, pimply teenager) while browsing the parakeet aisle (= aisle full of parakeets), all bathed in the psychedelic glow of a legendary Blue Light Special, wherein a rotating blue police cruiser–style light dramatically heralded a sale on, say, flash cubes for the next five minutes. And the promise of “Satisfaction Always?” Wasn’t that the song Mick Jagger wrote after he started taking Prozac and practicing aromatherapy? That was even worse than “Paint It Beige.” No one loves that Mick Jagger. And did you know that it was also K-mart who broke up the Beatles and was responsible for the ridiculous final season of Lost? It’s true.
POULTRY IN MOTION: Beware the Ides of Marsh! Textile historians have
speculated that the sunset’s distinctive near-fluorescent glow was
the result of a secret Cold War–era joint project spearheaded by DuPont,
the Atomic Energy Commission, and “Painter of Light” Thomas Kinkade.
Waterfowl, color photography of. While evocative images of migratory birds in flight at sunset enjoy enduring popularity on “In Deepest Sympathy” cards, the use of this subject as a decorative motif on textiles has never been sanctioned by animal rights organizations or good taste. Also, the geese on the shirt were plied with alcohol and cocaine during the photo shoot, told if they were really serious about a modeling career they’d “grow up” and disrobe without complaint, and repeatedly assured that the results would be strictly for the photographer’s “personal use.” Sadly, all of the geese involved are now dead, victims of profligate disco-era lifestyles and the manufacture of paté.
Do you own, or have you ever owned, an even awfuller shirt? I doubt it. But tell us about it anyway (even better, show us, I’ll post it: email@example.com) in the comments.