Permutations of ubiquity: from presidential to punk

Alabama Chanin sought to understand a symbol when she undertook the painstaking task of deconstructing a t-shirt, seam by seam, just to hand sew it back together again. Her inquiry lead her to start a now famous line, (Alabama Chanin) using simple applique hand quilting methods, and the cotton jersey fabric of our beloved American staple, the t-shirt, to produce simple and singular clothing. Similar to Chanin’s methods of deconstructing and hand rendering something old in an attempt to get at something new, I will utilize methods of deconstruction to elucidate new information about my “old” shirt. This shirt, although relatively new (both to the world, and to me) feels particularly old, given our world of frenetic political fervor.  It certainly felt fresh when I happened upon it during a random stumble through the internet, a t-shirt that perfectly encapsulated my support for leftist wonderboy Bernie Sanders, while also referencing one of my favorite bands, the Ramones.

bernie meets ramones
bernie meets ramones

Although the shirt itself is sold as merch for a Bernie supporting Ramones cover band called Bern Unit, I felt it was a strong enough design on its own to convey my political leanings to the masses, whether or not they had prior knowledge of the obscure band. I, not usually an internet shopper, decided to pony up the $12 and clicked buy. The shirt arrived in my mailbox later than I had hoped, luckily or unluckily enough, on the day of the Primary in New York, April 19th. As fate would have it, Bernie did not earn enough delegates for the nomination, and in less than 2 weeks, my new shirt was deemed worthless and old.

Still, I held on it, as a sort of relic, mostly wearing it to sleep in. I wondered, will this be an important vintage item in the coming years? When presented with our t-shirt project, this shirt immediately came to mind. What better item to re-envision than one whose vision for the future was cut short? To look to the shirts future, I thought it best to unpack a bit of its past.

The Ramones logo was crafted by Arturo Vega, a fixture in the world of Punk design, who also served as the band’s artistic director, lighting designer, t-shirt producer and salesman. The logo itself is now firmly situated in the world of American (perhaps even universal) iconography, and from its inception was a powerful tool for the band. The Ramones former manager gathered that the band probably sold more t-shirts than records, and maybe even more t-shirts than tickets to all of their 2,200+ live shows from 1974-1996 (with Vega attending all but 2). This logo, much like the music of the Ramones, is direct, simple and has a staying power that is undeniable. It is a direct reference, a copy, of the Presidential Seal, which Vega, born in Mexico, apparently saw on a trip to DC.  The elements of the logo, the arrows, the apple branch, the phrase on the script in the bird’s mouth (which once read, ‘Look out below’, but were changed to ‘Hey, ho let’s go’ after the band’s first single), the baseball bat in the eagles claw, all were chosen somewhat haphazardly by Vega, to convey his belief that the band was “as American as apple pie”.

og ramones logo
og ramones logo

The White House Presidential seal from which the Ramones logo is derived, has an obscure history but supposedly originates with from a small seal used by the first President of the Continental Congress (Peyton Randolph) first formed in 1774 during the American Revolution, for the first national government. One could argue that the seal is in fact as old as the idea of America itself, undoubtedly a fitting choice for the logo of an ‘all American band’. Its evolution as a design follows the young country’s growth and desires, from sketches of the eagle holding arrows by President Millard Fillmore in 1850, to President Truman’s changing the positioning of the Eagle and olive branches to reflect a pursuit of peace aligned with that of the newly formed Defense Department in 1945, up until its final and current iteration, with the executive order of the design by President Eisenhower in 1960, sporting the addition of the 50th star for the newly acquired state of Hawaii.

official
official

The changes of these logos over time reflect the way that emblems such as these evolve to convey changing trends, information and affiliation. Although the formats of these respective logos may be static now, the constant permutations and references made to them, seemingly infinite, reflect the ways in which we appropriate signs from our visual lexicon to decree alliance to institutions of the past, be it punk bands or our national government, or use them for humor, and even to appropriate or approximate the power with which they operate. A basic google search shows countless variations of the Ramones logo, the website redbubble.com has over 31 versions in its ‘Women’s Relaxed Fit Shirt’ category alone.

This Ramones logo my shirt references is a perfect fit given Bernie Sanders’ White House aspirations. But these two forms, the logo and t-shirt, are a relatively new union, and my shirt would not have been possible before the 20th century. In fact, it would take over 100 years after the birth of the Presidential emblem for the t-shirt to be born, and like many fashion items considered staples today, it started in the military. A simple pull over version of the t-shirt, designed to be worn under a uniform, became standard issue of the US Navy during the American Spanish war of 1898. The shirt quickly evolved to be the outerwear we know and love today, due to its affordability (cheap Cotton) and suitability for workwear, it was added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in the 1920’s. The first printed t-shirt could very well have been those worn by the workers featured in the Castle of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1938, whose shirts are simply emblazoned with the name of their boss (OZ). The t-shirt’s mass-appeal as outerwear was driven home when donned by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

first t-shirt?
first t-shirt?

As the t-shirt seems applicable and attractive to virtually every mode of fashion, from couture to work-wear, one must wonder, what makes it so permeable, so mutable? Perhaps this mysterious permeability lies in its ubiquity, its legibility and its ability to be a sounding board for the tautological nature of today’s frenzied pace of design references. It seems to inherently reference all other t-shirts before it, rendering its particular history, and relative individuality either incredibly important (see sought after vintage band t-shirts selling for thousands) or irrelevant (see graphic tees in Forever 21), as well as furiously obscuring the conditions of its production. It exists at once continually on the cusp of our cultural imagination, bolding proclaiming views or lifestyles, while the object itself, the t-shirt behind the message, is desperately hard to tie down as a symbol.

Holding my Bernie shirt, it’s white ink still bright, the black cotton soft from multiple launderings, I consider it’s afterlife, its political economy as a symbol, as a construct, and most wholeheartedly an object through which I will consider on these functions. What will you become? I ask of it. What should you become? Why? Will your form, that of the t-shirt, be around in 100 years? In 500?

I picture Chanin’s hands, carefully yielding a seam ripper to that first t-shirt, gingerly undoing its structure stitch by stitch. I imagine her meditating on form, on function, on the ways in which we don’t question that which we read as background information, the things we take as given, and the normalcy of these assumptions, as plain as a simple t-shirt.

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