“Wow, they’re really scraping the barrel with this now, aren’t they?” is what you might be thinking here. But you’d be wrong – the innocuous t-shirt has actually been employed in plenty of forward-thinking ways throughout cinema’s history.
Also it doesn’t hurt that there’s been a fair few of them over the years that look mint. So, without further chat, let’s have a butchers…
JEFF BRIDGES, THE BIG LEBOWSKI - 1998
Let’s boot this one off with a belter, shall we? Here’s Jeff Bridges in arguably his most iconic roll: The Dude in Joel and Ethan Coens’ The Big Lebowski.
This is the story of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, L.A. slacker and bowler extraordinaire, and the various misadventures that follow after he has his rug stolen.
For those wondering, the baseball bat-wielding man on El Duderino’s raglan t-shirt is Japanese baseball hero Kaoru Betto. Betto is idolised in the world of Japanese baseball, as he was the first player to win the Nippon Professional Baseball (the Japanese version of Major League Baseball) Pacific League MVP Award. Not sure why Jeff idolises him, but whatever – you can’t say he doesn’t look great on a shirt.
You also may have noticed this t-shirt appears on Jeff Bridges’ torso in The Fisher King as well. This is because Jeff Bridges actually owns this t-shirt, and will often wear his own gear during filming. In fact, most of the clobber Jeff wears in The Big Lebowski is in fact his.
“The Dude abides, man.”
SEAN PENN, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH - 1982
Now, here's Sean Penn as everyone's favourite stoner-surfer-burn-out Jeff Spicoli in Amy Heckerling's coming-of-age hit Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
This film chronicles a school year in the lives of the various students who attend the eponymous school, including Jeff Spicoli, as he faces off against uptight history teacher Mr Hand.
Colt 45 is particularly popular brand of malt liquor in America, loved by everyone from hard-hitting rappers, to sleek surfer dudes, all the way over to Billy Dee Williams himself, who has lent his esteemed face to print, radio and TV ads for the brand since the early 80s.
By 'ol Spicoli proudly representing the Colt 45 brand on his t-shirt, we can instantly deduce what kind of character he is — a fun-loving slacker with a penchant for intoxicants and narcotics. What I'm trying to say is that even something as simple as a cotton garment can be employed to develop character and even used as a method of presenting mise en scène.
You may think I'm reading too much into it – and you might be right... a degree in film studies will do that to a man. But whatever: Jeff's t-shirt is mint.
FAYE WONG, CHUNGKING EXPRESS - 1994
Up next we've got Hong Kong superstar Faye Wong looking slightly aghast here in Wong Kar-Wai's frenetic masterpiece Chungking Express.
Chungking Express splits its time between two stories, each about a lovesick copper in Hong Kong philosophically mulling over their relationship with a woman who has recently binned them off.
Is the heart on the t-shirt Faye wears when she meets Cop 663 (Tony Leung) a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of what happens later on in the film, when they fall in love? I know that sounds pretty obvious and sort-of daft, but in the opinion of this humble writer, it's this level of attention on easily overlooked details that warrants a £7 DVD price tag at your local media emporium, instead of being cast into the £2 bargain bucket.
And when there's big budget Hollywood blockbusters that can't CGI out a moustache convincingly, it's always good to see someone making films properly.
JANE HORROCKS, LIFE IS SWEET - 1990
Here we've got Jane Horrocks in Mike Leigh's tragicomic classic Life is Sweet, the only film on this list to feature a scene of a prolonged chocolate-based sex act.
Life is Sweet follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a working-class family in North London over the course of a few weeks one summer. Jane plays Nicola, an embittered shut-in who views the other members of her family, and the human race, with contempt.
You might not be able to read it, but Nicola's t-shirt reads 'BOLLOCKS TO THE POLL TAX'. For those too young (myself included) to remember what the poll tax was, here's a brief explanation: the poll tax was introduced in replacement of domestic rates in 1989. It provided for a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult, at a rate set by the local authority. When introduced, the tax was massively unpopular, as many viewed it as unfair and needlessly burdensome on the lower classes. Mass protests and unrest grew, eventually culminating in the 1990 Poll Tax Riots. It was abolished and replaced only three years later with council tax.
But that's enough no-holes-barred, excitement-packed adventures into the history of taxation for one article. Let's talk about the clothes, shall we?
… yes, the t-shirt is very striking indeed.
JERRY LEVINE, TEEN WOLF - 1985
To round this off, let's take a look at one of the many pillars of off-the-wall, 80s ridiculousness – the one-of-a-kind Teen Wolf.
For those that haven't seen it, Teen Wolf is exactly what it sounds like – a teenager (Michael J. Fox) discovers that his family has an unusual pedigree, which regularly causes him to turn into a werewolf. Obviously, that makes his adolescence just a little bit harder and a tad more inconvenient.
While being pretty low-end, the film is still a lot of fun, despite coming into being through studio greed. Teen Wolf came after the runaway success of a film called Valley Girl, which also weirdly combined the teen-movie genre with a sub-genre of horror. While not as critically praised as Valley Girl, Teen Wolf still did numbers at the box office, and spawned a legacy of spin-offs and reboots. Not bad for a film about adolescent creatures of myth forced to play basketball.
Oh yeah, the t-shirt; what's there to say about this one then? Not much, it isn't really in service of the plot, the characters or even the overall film, I just thought it was pretty funny.
Right, there you have it: some of the best t-shirts ever to grace the silver screen. Hope you found this month's instalment of Films and Things not only to be enjoyable, but informative as well. If you're after a t-shirt of your own, have a look at some here…