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The coolest piece of clothing I own is 12 years old. For years it sat in storage in my parents’ basement among other sentimental T-shirts I never wore but couldn’t bring myself to throw away. Then I decided to move to New York, and my parents told me I had to vastly reduce the amount of unused crap I was keeping in their house. I tossed or donated every tennis team and college club T-shirt, but when I pulled a large black Ashlee Simpson Autobiography tour T-shirt from the bin, its album cover iron-on graphics worn thin, I knew I couldn’t part with it. In the years that had passed since I first purchased it, the shirt had grown exponentially cooler.
When a group of friends and I went to see Ashlee Simpson in concert as high school seniors, Ashlee Simpson was not cool. This was post-SNL debacle, pre-nostalgia. Her album was not particularly well-received. We loved her anyway. But now, 10 years later, Autobiography is called “underrated” and “a great pop album.” And I get to have the enjoyable experience of telling people “I told you so,” because I have proof I loved her way back when: an incredibly soft, worn, old-enough-to-be-vintage Ashlee Simpson tour muscle T-shirt (I cut off the sleeves a few years ago — extra cool).
Faux-vintage band T-shirts are having a moment, as they do every two to three years, which must mean people younger and cooler than I are buying them. But while some of these shirts can be cute enough, they can never, ever be cool.
Real vintage clothing is cool because of its authenticity, its individuality in a sea of trends. The fake vintage band T-shirt is thus an oxymoron. It is cynical, assuming that the only cool thing about the actual vintage band T-shirt is the cultural association to the band printed on it. They’re supposed to suggest you know something about music because the band on your shirt isn’t currently on the radio, and because they speak to a snobbish dichotomy between “real” music and what’s popular now, but there are only ever about six white dude rock band shirts to be found in rotation: Iron Maiden, Nirvana, The Clash, Metallica, AC/DC, Pink Floyd. Typically, these aren’t shirts one buys out of love or fandom — they’re shirts one buys for what they signify. When Kendall Jenner wears a fake-vintage Slayer shirt, it is not because she listens to Slayer, but because it would be dissonant and cool to be as hot as Kendall Jenner and listen to Slayer.
I called my dad — whose love of Queen and Led Zeppelin and The Who certainly informed my own weird musical tastes as a preteen — to ask what he thought about the kids these days wearing band shirts for bands they don’t even like. He paused. “I was not even aware this was a trend,” he said. “That really strikes me as odd.” This is about as harsh as he gets. I asked if the same thing happened when he was a teenager. “When I was younger, the rule was, you wear the shirts of the bands you like, but you never wear a band’s shirt to that band’s show.” I reassured him that the latter part, at least, is still true.
But maybe my dad and I are just old and cranky. So I spoke to an actual youth, Rebecca, 20, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to ask what she thought about fake (and real) band T-shirts. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with buying the [fake-vintage] shirts if you like the band, or if you have some connection to them, like your dad listened to them a lot or something,” she says. “But I don’t really understand why you would buy one purely for the aesthetic. They’re not fooling anybody.”
Rebecca also fairly points out that for some bands, the faux-vintage selections offered by retailers are the only ones you can find that aren’t hundreds of dollars on eBay. Which brings me to my main plea: Teens and kids of America, please, save even the dumbest-seeming T-shirts from concerts you’re going to now, and maybe buy them a couple of sizes too big. There will be a fallow period during which you’ll be embarrassed you ever went to see Jason Derulo or Little Mix or Shawn Mendes (kids like him, right?) in concert, but you will get over it, and in five or 10 years’ time, you will look back on your younger, purer self with admiration. She knew what she liked and bought a T-shirt to show it, even when other people thought it was lame. And genuine enthusiasm (plus enough time for nostalgia to grow) will always be cool.