Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘t-shirt’

The New American Uniform

In Stuff We Like on October 9, 2013 at 11:15 am

(an extract from How Not to be American, by Todd McEwen, published by Aurum, October, 2013)

For reasons too dreary to relate, I moved for a year to a remote spot in Arizona, near the Navajo and Apache reservations. My partner had a job and I did not, nor was I able to find any useful employment during the entire time we lived there. We lived in a tiny community whose only hope of survival lay in enticing people from Phoenix to drive four hours, 7,000 feet up into the mountains, to fish, golf, ski or gamble at the casino run by the White Mountain Apache. Naturally, you could get them to do this about once a year. The rest of the time my fellow citizens sat around on their mountaintop drinking and freezing – sometimes to death – in inadequate houses and trailer parks. In the depths of winter you went around wondering who needed the bait shops, gift shops, golf shops, tanning and nail salons.  …

I was sitting in the parking lot of Walmart, wondering how I was going to feed myself, when I suddenly realised that everyone in the parking lot was wearing the same thing (except for me, of course, still ludicrously togged out in plus-fours and Inverness cape). What they were wearing was this: a baseball cap, a T-shirt, shorts, and what I was brought up to call tennis shoes but are now called running shoes, or in Europe, trainers. This is what the poorest people on earth are wearing right now, I thought. Reaganomics had foisted the third world upon us.

Everything we had seen, all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Phoenix, and then all the way up into these here mountains looked so run down – the basic infrastructure of the country really was being ignored, because everyone (everyone who could) was having to work eighteen hours a day, thanks to what Reagan had done to the economy, was still doing to it. This is all the result of the one Republican thought:


The more I looked the more I saw that this really was, and is, what everyone must now wear all over America, except in the places which harbour harsh winters, when the shorts become jeans. Not that jeans will keep you warm.

A dreadful, overt conformism has surfaced in America, along with a real fear of each other. People used to enjoy being with each other, say at a baseball game. But now everyone in the ball park is afraid, afraid something bad will happen. Friendly rivalries between cities and teams have become real little wars, with their own terrorist outriders. Everyone’s full of hate.

You can spot my countrymen in Europe by this uniform of T-shirt, shorts and cap. The American used to be spottable by a crisp new Burberry acquired in London and, as Fraser Smith once said, a very silly hat. And for my older fellow Americans this is still true – but if you get underneath the Burberry (yeccch!) this is what they’re wearing. So I think of this now as a uniform – the New American Uniform. It has an important bearing on the world situation and how we may analyse it.


By the baseball cap, whatever it may say on it, Americans want to signal that they are American. But it is more a sign that they are part of the global marketing culture of fast food and pop music; it signals that they are fresh from Walmart . . . And you see everyone wearing this cap in every country now, on television, even in National Geographic. My definition of the word democratic:


T-shirts are UNDERWEAR. That is how we were told to regard them when young. So how’s that for casualisation? My mother would never admit of a T-shirt being a ‘real’ item of clothing; they were also forbidden to be worn at school – and now they’re the basis of American school wear.

The T-shirt is without complexity. It is like television: you don’t need to bother with all that HISTORY, you can go out in the world in two pieces of cloth. A T-shirt worn with shorts reduces you to a PICTOGRAM.  …


always make everyone look stupid. Though I grew up in Los Angeles, and until I was an adult never experienced temperatures below 75 degrees Fahrenheit, I always had a horror of shorts. Especially the largely synthetic tan ones with an elasticated waist I pissed in time and again my first year at school.  …


Tennis shoes? Gym shoes? Sand shoes? Running shoes? Plimsolls? BUMPERS? I was very embarrassed to have my trendy Green Flash tennis shoes called ‘bumpers’ at the beach last summer. I saw someone wearing them in Vogue, for god’s sake. Bumpers!

Mom always said, tennis shoes are bad for your feet. They give no arch support and they don’t breathe. We don’t wear tennis shoes in this family. TENNIS SHOES ARE NOT REAL SHOES. But for some reason she once bought me a pair of PF Flyers – red – and I got a free whistle which looked like the moon. Like T-shirts, tennis shoes were never allowed at school, though some of the edgier characters in fourth grade wore them. This seemed goofy, or possibly seditious. It’s possible, though, that these boys were merely poor. Tennis shoes STINK, but they can be washed in the machine.

That was then. But then came the Invasion of the Adidas, in the 1970s. And from that moment, tennis shoes got weirder and weirder and more and more hideous, to the point that they seemed actually to assert MENACE. Again, eventually, blacks customised the prevailing styles, which was to satirise them – walking around with the laces untied and the tongues hanging out – it called attention to the footwear of the ghetto (the third world – an important point), but was also like disobeying the teacher, having your shirt tail hanging out.

In the end, though, trainers are still a children’s shoe. This gives the wearer the illusion of being engaged always in active play:

Let’s be worldly for a moment: these shoes are made by very poor children in sweatshops – therefore in wearing them you say, ‘I don’t care who made this, it’s the latest thing and I got it,’ and this is really a statement that you’re happy with the world the way it is, where we’re to accept our anaesthesia so as to live happily with our GOODS.

The marketers need you to remain childlike – this uniform is proof that they are reaching complete control of our lives. They take the child as the model for the ideal purchaser – someone who is totally hypnotisable.  …


Then came the little folding scooters. You began to see forty- year-old men pushing themselves along the street on these things, dressed in baseball caps, T-shirts, shorts, tennis shoes . . . The whole thing is too obvious. Where are the beanie caps with the propellers on top? Where are the all-day suckers? Everyone is being turned into ‘Stinky’ from the old Abbott & Costello show – a rotund, bald man of fifty who wore short pants, a broad straw hat with long ribbons on it and played with a stick and hoop.

Let’s be disgusting for a moment: do you know what a back- crack-and-sac wax is? Ask at your neighbourhood salon. Men more than ever have got to be turned into hairless infants!


The New American Uniform is clothing for CLONES. The human body requires individual attention to look good in clothes, which after all aren’t natural. But this process is not about looking good – it’s about being in an unofficial American army. It’s about disappearing into a mass where you’ll never stand out, never be seen again, and can’t be targeted by those who wish to kill (or mate). And so you will live eternally! HA HA.

This uniform was in the 1950s and 1960s the uniform of slobbering, fly-blown idiots in Mad magazine and other comic books. See the art of Jack Davis.

‘Sportswear’, in general, is linked to homogenisation, tribalism, anonymity. Here we have the idea of widespread leisure, which can easily be shifted to mass idleness, not to say unemployment. A lot of people confuse these things already, unhappily enough for them.

The New American Uniform is a sexless outfit for men and women, though women seem often embarrassed to be wearing it; probably because men have forced them into it, into their army. We say these things, don’t we, fellows? This is the best thing to wear. It’s real practical! But it’s a very bad look in terms of design, of dignity even, and it makes women look particularly bad. It is an anti-ethnic outfit, too. No wonder it is satirised constantly in the ghetto and the third world.

But American OBESITY is the real capper with this new uniform: they’re all scooter-podging around wearing the baseball cap, the T-shirt, the shorts, and the trainers, and what does it say to the rest of us out here? It says to the world DON’T DEPEND ON ME – I’M ONLY A KID:



•  YOU HAVE TO BE NICE TO ME AND IF YOU’RE NOT I’M GONNA SHOOT YOU (strapping on fanny pack or gun)



. . . and what is that but United States foreign policy?