Unlike any other garment, the T-shirt lets you wear a message on your chest. But unless you’re going for James Dean in a plain white tee, sometimes that message is bound to offend — especially as brands from Abercrombie & Fitch to American Apparel to Ed Hardy and beyond see just how far their graphics can push the envelope. It's no coincidence, of course, that the band T-shirts of the eighties gave way to graphic-logo mania in the nineties, and, along with it, the Internet rose to prominence as the place where those upset at racist, sexist, and otherwise offensive tees could call for boycotts. Billions of T-shirts are sold every year. Everyone owns at least one of them. But despite their undeniable simplicity in structure and purpose, sometimes their execution — whether rendered in crystals or dirty words — gets a bit complicated. Herewith, the 50 shirts that set off the biggest firestorms in (recent) history.
# More Boyfriends Than T.S. T-Shirt
Controversy: Taylor Swift fans erupted with the fury of a million confessional country songs when they discovered Abercrombie & Fitch was poking fun at their goddess. Resolution: Abercrombie, the granddaddy of the offensive T-shirt scandal, swiftly pulled the shirt from stores rather than face more Twitter wrath.
My Best Subjects T-Shirt
Controversy: Everyone knows that little girls would rather be shopping, singing, and dancing than doing math, right? Wait, not so fast. Resolution: Just this August, The Children's Place was forced to pull this shirt from all their stores after an online firestorm.
How to Catch an Illegal Immigrant T-Shirt
Controversy: Earlier this year Taco Cid — a Mexican restaurant in West Columbia, South Carolina, sold this shirt featuring two tacos in an "illegal immigrant" trap. Resolution: The owner was unapologetic when some in the community complained and said, "It's not racist … It's immigrants — illegal immigrants."
An NRA T-Shirt
Controversy: 15-year-old Jared Marcum was arrested for obstructing an officer after police were called when he refused to listen to officials at his high school in West Virginia. Marcum was asked to turn his National Rifle Association shirt with an illustration of a gun inside out Resolution: A judge dismissed the charges.
Keep Calm and Rape On
Controversy: Amazon started to get a ton of complaints about this off-color shirt from Massachusetts retailer Solid Gold Bomb in March 2013. Resolution: Amazon not only pulled the shirt but all of the company's products. By June it was out of business. Oh, the power of the e-tailer.
AIDS Kills Fags Dead T-Shirt
Controversy: At a 1991 Skid Row concert, the most offensive thing on frontman Sebastian Bach wasn't his haircut, but this shirt. Resolution: He later apologized and said he didn't read the shirt before putting it on, the fashion equivalent of "I didn't inhale." He claims to have subsequently donated $12,000 to AIDS-related charities.
Rebecca Minkoff's Fur T-Shirt
Controversy: As long as PETA is making billboards with naked celebs, fur will always be controversial, as it was on these Spring/Summer 2012 Tees. Resolution: Spring/Summer 2012 is so two seasons ago.
Peaches Geldof's Confederate Flag T-Shirt
Controversy: The British import wore it in 2010 to a party in L.A., when she was still trying to be a thing in America. Apparently no one told her that's not like a Union Jack over here. Resolution: Peaches is back in Britain.
Kristen Stewart's Robert Pattinson T-Shirt
Controversy: In 2011, when on a "break," KStew wore a piece of RPatz clothing out in public. For a girl who acts like she hates fame, this is the most passive aggressive "take me back" plea involving the paparazzi we've ever seen. Resolution: They got back together before splitting again. Maybe she's taken to secretly wearing his boxers, and we just don't know it?
Kanye West's $82 Alexander Wang T-Shirt
Controversy: It's not that anyone is going to begrudge you an expensive white tee (and Wang's are the best), but Kanye wore his during his visit to Occupy Wall Street. Yes, while trying to commiserate with the 99 percent, he wore a $30,000 outfit. Resolution: Zuccotti Park has been cleaned up; Kanye’s obnoxious reputation has not.
Jay-Z's Occupy All Streets T-Shirt
Controversy: In late 2011, Hova put this $22 shirt for sale through his Rocawear website. Many assumed proceeds were going to Occupy Wall Street. That was never the plan. Resolution: Jay-Z is still rich.
Coed Naked T-Shirts
Controversy: There was never much blowback to this punny eighties and nineties staple, but back in the day, they were so ubiquitous they were worse than, well, a pack of lacrosse players. Resolution: Coed Sportswear still operates in New Hampshire (of course) and has a shirt for every occasion.
Old Navy's Lets Go Line
Controversy: In 2011, the strip mall behemoth put together a whole line for various popular colleges emblazoned with "Lets Go" and the name of their mascot. The problem? A missing apostrophe, which every blogger with an English degree pointed out. Resolution: Like they always do, the Internet's copy editors eventually got over it.
Problem Solved T-Shirt
Controversy: In 2007, parents in Toledo, Ohio, got their shirts in a bunch and protested Kmart over this product they said promotes violence and pushing around women for no good reason. Resolution: Kmart took the shirt off the shelves. Keep it classy, Toledo.
Manifest Destiny T-Shirt
Controversy: The only thing people on social media hated more than the Gap's new logo was this T-Shirt with the nearly forgotten high-school history quiz answer emblazoned on it. In 2012, a Change.org petition to have it nixed had more than 5,000 signatures. Resolution: The Gap and menswear designer Mark McNairy, who designed the shirt, both apologized.
Hermès Crocodile T-Shirt
Controversy: Who cares that this is swamp lizard? What pissed off every (jealous?) fashion blogger earlier in 2013 is that it cost $91,500. Resolution: That shirt is cute.
Enjoy the Silence T-Shirt
Controversy: In 2010, a handful of California State University, Long Beach students tried to get surf store Tilly's and manufacturer LRG to shut up and stop selling this shirt that encourages the silencing of women. Resolution: You can still purchase it for $19.97.
Abercrombie & Fitch's Asian T-Shirts
Controversy: Apparently the clothier of choice for popular high school boys had no idea that shirts with slanty-eyed Asians and slogans like "Wong Brother's Laundry Service: Two Wongs Will Make It White" would be offensive. Go figure. Resolution: In 2002, the store pulled the shirts and apologized for the first of many race-related scandals.
Pink T-Shirts in Bristol, Conn.
Controversy: Firefighters in the Hartford suburb (and home of ESPN!) wanted to wear pink shirts to show support for breast cancer last October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month). The mayor banned the practice, saying that it's in the firefighter's contract to wear blue uniforms. Resolution: They mayor won, but he can't stop them from participating in Movember if they want.
Abercrombie & Fitch's Sexist T-Shirts
Controversy: In 2005, the always-subtle retailer offered T-shirts for women that included the slogans "With These, Who Needs Brains?" "Available for Parties," and "I Had a NIghtmare I Was a Brunette." Resolution: A group of Pennsylvania girls organized a "girlcott," which took off after they appeared on the Today show. A&F not only pulled the shirts, but sat down with the girls to discuss empowering T-shirt slogans. Who needs those when you have brains?
If I Wanted the Government in My Womb, I'd Fuck a Senator T-Shirt
Controversy: In 2012, an anonymous woman wearing a shirt bearing that slogan was asked by the crew of an American Airlines flight to change her shirt because of the offensive language. Liberal bloggers got in a kerfuffle, thinking it was the people who fly us over the fly-over states getting all pro-life. Resolution: A few months later, American Airlines published their dress code, which bans shirts with profanity on them. If we wanted American Airlines in our planes, we'd ... oh, never mind.
Eat Less T-Shirt
Controversy: Urban Outfitters, the worlds largest purveyor of vaguely ethnic tapestries hung in dorm rooms, put this shirt on a super skinny, pale model. Because of course. Resolution: They pulled the shirt and ate the loss.
Controversy: Remember in 2010 when burn-out T-shirts were all the rage? Urban Outfitters offered a two-toned henley whose color was described as Obama/Black. Resolution: After being put through the Internet's liberal outrage machine, Urban explained that the two colors in the shirt are a color they developed called "Obama Blue" and black and their computers shortened the first color when listing the combo. They pulled the shirt because apparently reprogramming the computer to call it "Obama Blue/Black" was too difficult (or insinuated bruising our president).
Controversy: While on her way to the Social Security Office in Van Nuys, California, in 2008, Lapriss Gilbert was asked by a security guard to leave for wearing the "offensive T-shirt." Resolution: Gilbert called her mother, also a lesbian and an activist, who called the cops and came down to the building. After a stink, another security guard not only escorted Gilbert into the building, but let her cut the line at the Social Security office.
Almost Star of David T-Shirt
Controversy: The Anti-Defamation League got upset at Urban Outfitters (who else?) for selling a shirt with a patch that looked like the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear in the Holocaust. Resolution: Danish manufacturer Wood Wood said they knew it looked like the insignia, but that's not what they meant, so they figured it was okay. Urban started selling the shirt without the patch. Wise choice.
Straight Pride T-Shirt
Controversy: A handful of students wore these shirts, with a Bible quote on the back ("If a man lay with a male as those who lay with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination and shall surely be put to DEATH") to Ally Week at a suburban Chicago high school in 2010. The faculty and the kids in the Gay Straight Alliance were not amused. Resolution: The teens were asked to cover the shirts up and did voluntarily. They were not punished.
Anything Ed Hardy
Controversy: Aesthetically offensive like nothing that's come before them. Resolution: Luckily, in 2010, the real Ed Hardy (he exists!) wrested control of the label back from designer Christian Audigier, the man who blinged the shirts out to look like a vajazzling station at the mall. The style has subsequently fallen out of favor.
Hypercolor T-Shirt That Got Stuck
Controversy: The problem with these early-nineties tees that changed color when they were warm is that they would get stuck as one color (usually pink) if you put them in the dryer, rendering them plain and boring. Resolution: Maybe this is why Hypercolor didn't make a comeback with Lisa Frank, Saved By the Bell, and everything else BuzzFeed salivates over.
A Tank Top with a Hood
Controversy: Queen, don't you even. Resolution: One of these days gay men will get over their tank top fixation, and Universal Gear will go back to selling bad denim and overpriced undies.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's "I Survived Maria" T-Shirt
Controversy: In 2011, after his cheating scandal and just before his divorce from sainted Kennedy Maria Shriver, the former "Governator" was photographed wearing this shirt that Shriver gave to all her staff members at the governor's mansion as a gag gift. Making it even worse, the shirt initially had the dates 2007–2010 written on it, but Ah-nold doctored it to read 1977–2010, the duration for which they dated. Resolution: Did you see The Last Stand? Yeah, neither did anyone else.
American Apparel Deep V T-Shirt
Controversy: Several years ago, nothing telegraphed hipster like this ubiquitous style that looks good on far fewer people than dared to rock it. Resolution: Like PBR, fixies, and Wiliamsburg apartments, the only hipsters who still wear these live in the imaginations of suburban moms, casting directors, and New YorkTimes "Style" section editors.
The Faux Tuxedo T-Shirt
Controversy: The wearer clearly knows that no one is fooled by the eveningwear print. What we're left with is unbridled animosity toward convention in a formal setting. Resolution: These were in so many eighties movies that they are bound for an ironic comeback at any moment.
Miley Cyrus' Many Iron Maiden T-Shirts
Controversy: We get it, Miley. You're old and you have adult tastes and you're not Hannah Montana anymore. But you might want to try more tricks than getting snapped wearing the same death metal band's T-shirts on at least three separate occasions in so many months. What are you gonna do next? Wear it to their concert? Resolution: This was 2011. She's moved on to short hair, removable grills, twerking, and much less than a T-shirt.
Simon Cowell's Black V-Neck T-Shirt
Controversy: For several years during American Idol's heyday, the smug Brit wore this uniform while hurling insults at the world's most skilled karaoke singers. It's not the repetition that was controversial or offensive. It was the ill-fitting snugness that made his physique look wrong. Resolution: He changed wardrobes and changed shows. Fewer people watch The X Factor. Coincidence?
Sharon Stone's 1996 Oscar T-Shirt
Controversy: Legend has it that Stone was having a "I have nothing to wear" fit on Oscar night and eventually paired a Gap turtleneck tee with a Valentino gown and history was made. Resolution: This is the only victory Sharon has ever had at the Oscars.
Marc Ecko's Halo T-Shirts
Controversy: In 2009, the streetwear guru released a line of shirts that were so ugly even the fashion-challenged subculture of gamers wouldn't buy them. Resolution: Near bankruptcy in 2010.
Be Happy, Not Gay T-Shirt
Controversy: A student in Naperville, Illinois, wore a homemade T-shirt bearing that slogan and school officials blacked out the "not gay" portion of her message. Resolution: She sued the school, and, after it went all the way to the federal appeals court, judges said the school couldn't ban the shirt. By that time the student had already graduated.
I'm Too Pretty to Do Homework T-Shirt
Controversy: JCPenny got more complaints than there are parking spots at the mall for this antifeminist silliness. Resolution: Your mom's favorite store pulled this shirt and said, "We agree that the T-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message."
Every Slur at Once T-Shirt
Controversy: A few years ago, a Korean company made this shirt with a host of offensive names written in a pretty font. Non-English speaking women snapped it up to the giggles and awe of bilingual bloggers everywhere. Resolution: You'll never look at a T-shirt in a foreign language the same ever again.
A Mitt Romney T-Shirt
Controversy: A teacher in Philadelphia was suspended when she told a student wearing a "Mitt Romney for President" T-shirt that it was akin to wearing "a KKK sheet." Resolution: Look who's in the White House.
The Big House T-Shirt
Controversy: 5-year-old Cooper Barton was forced to turn his shirt, emblazoned with the name of the University of Michigan's football stadium, inside out by his Oklahoma City kindergarten teacher because of a school policy that doesn't allow clothing supporting other states' schools. Resolution: Barton and his family were flown to Ann Arbor by the university and given a hero's welcome at a home game in the Big House. Now Cooper's going to think getting into college is that easy.
Rihanna Deserved It T-Shirt
Controversy: Oh hell no! Resolution: CafePress, the put-whatever-tacky-logo-you-want-on-crappy-merch website pulled it down.
Enjoy Vagina T-Shirt
Controversy: 15-year-old Brianna Demato was sent home from school in Queens in 2012 for wearing this parody of the Coke logo. Her mom rushed to the bi teen's defense. Resolution: Demato has kept her preferences more private.
The $400,000 T-Shirt
Controversy: This Superlative Luxury creation is the price of a one-bedroom apartment in Astoria. It is encrusted with diamonds. It's also ugly. Resolution: Who honestly believes someone actually bought one of these?
Katy Perry's Elmo T-Shirt
Controversy: After a 2010 video she made with Elmo was cut from Sesame Street because she was just too damn busty for PBS, Perry responded by doing a hilarious skit bursting out of an Elmo shirt on SNL. Resolution: Comic success!
Everything at Jam Rags
Controversy: In 2010, this British company, self-described as "cotton for cunts" had a host of willfully offensive shirts with slogans like "Calm Down Dear, Let's Not Turn This Rape Into a Murder," "I'm Not Racist, Racism Is a Crime & Crime is For Black People," and "I Like My Muslims Like I Like My Coffee. I Don't Like Coffee." Resolution: A visit to their former website, JamRags.com, leads to a blank page. Guess there aren't as many "cunts" out there as they thought.
Nice New Girlfriend What Breed Is She? T-Shirt
Controversy: What would Topshop be without a few T-Shirt controversies of its own? Feminists got upset about this top comparing women to animals. Resolution: By the time the Internet noticed, it was already sold out.
Brenda Song's Offendid T-Shirt
Controversy: It's one thing to wear a brand parody T-shirt. It's another thing to wear a brand parody T-shirt that makes the Fendi logo look like a swastika. It's another another thing to wear a brand parody T-shirt that makes the Fendi logo look like a swastika and is full of awful artfully crafted holes. Resolution: Brenda Song is now co-starring in the "racist" and "misogynistic" sitcom Dads.
Nike's Gold Digging T-Shirt
Controversy: The athletic brand tried to subvert stereotypes with this ironic bit of athletic wear. Some bloggers took umbrage. Resolution: The shirt wasn't pulled and, like all tempests in all the Internet's teapot, Slate wrote a counterintuitive defense of the shirt.
The American Apparel Period Shirt
Controversy: To fulfill their outrageous shirt quota for 2013, American Apparel sold a shirt designed by Canadian artist Petra Collins emblazoned with a vagina that was menstruating while being, um, loved by its owner. Resolution: AA got what it always gets, lots of outrage. The shirt is no longer listed on the store’s website which means it’s either sold out, or discontinued. The L.A.Times puts its money on the former.
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