COMMENTARY: Words on clothing mean things, whether it’s what you want them to mean or not

Melania Trump's jacket, whether intentional or not, was read and heard -- loud and clear


About 15 years ago, around the time I began writing for this paper, message T-shirts -- some political, some pithy and others just punny -- were  a thing. I was in my early 30s at the time and probably a few years north of the target age, but they were cute and I bought a few. My favorite was an homage to my devotion to the “Law and Order” franchise, the words “Chung Chung”  spelling out the sound of the signature effect that plays between title cards.

I loved that shirt, but a few non-“L&O” fans, who didn’t get the joke, thought I was making some unknown slur against Asian-Americans. I knew that it wasn’t, but rather than offend people -- and apparently make a joke that was less cute and funny than I thought -- I stopped wearing it. I knew what I meant, but I was a columnist, even if only known by the public between Jupiter and North Boca Raton. I didn’t have to, but I did and it was just a T-shirt. It wasn’t worth making a thing about.

Because words mean things.

My closet is full of tees that say stuff, from a Rolling Stones “Voodoo Lounge” tour shirt full of various signature tongues, to a vintage English Beat shirt, to my brand new one featuring the ladies of “Black Panther.” 

I do not wear shirts endorsing political candidates or explicitly religious statements, not because I don’t believe in some candidates or God, but because, as a reporter, I need to maintain the appearance of impartiality. And no curse words either -- not that I don’t curse, because I kinda do -- but again, because I know that I am making a statement, whether or not I put out a press release explaining it or whether that statement’s the one I was trying to make.

Because words mean things.

Even when I buy a shirt knowing it’s a wee cheeky, I sometimes find myself wearing it in situations when it appears to have a meaning I didn’t intend. I have a Jack Daniels tee I bought at Lucky Jeans, in deliciously soft black cotton, that I wear to specific effect. With a blazer and ripped jeans, it says, “I am a cool reporter person.”  I did not wear it to visit my grandmother over Mother’s Day weekend because she doesn’t like drinking, and even though I’m an adult, I knew wearing that shirt to her house might seem disrespectful or, at the least, tone-deaf. So I didn’t. I have other shirts.

Because words mean things.

But I’m not always that forward thinking. I once dragged myself to an early yoga class when I was barely awake and didn’t realize till I was lying on my mat drinking coffee out of my kid’s sippy cup that I was wearing my Jack shirt. I knew it could look like an attempt at being edgy in a Zen space, or disrespectful. That’s not what I meant. But I knew it might look that way.

I use words for a living, and so I use them carefully, when writing them and even when wearing them. 

There are ones I’d like to use that I eschew, at least in print, because I think about how they might be interpreted and sometimes think better of it. Sometimes I use provocative ones to make a point, and I brace myself for their impact because I’ve been alive long enough to know what I am doing. 

There’s a shirt someone pointed out to me on social media just the other day that made a curt but timely social statement, that takes a term created to denigrate people who look like me and use it as a point of pride. I desperately wanted that shirt, but I knew that I would offend some people, confuse others and that I might have to bring a history book and Internet links to explain to still others. Whatever they might think I was saying, they would know it was something.


And as cute as it was, I could not wear it and pretend that I was not making a statement, or that it was just the first thing I threw on. It would speak for itself, and no amount of “Oh, it’s just a shirt” would be believable because I am an adult who uses words for a living. If you don’t explain yourself, I can’t for sure say definitively what you were trying to say, and even if you do, that doesn’t mean it’s true. I can’t say. I’m not you. But unless someone tied you down and made you wear it, you know you were saying... something.

Because words mean things. 


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