It's hard living in an era when you know a golden age has just passed. This is surely what the literary world felt just after the time of Shakespeare. Could you imagine coming into the art world just after the death of Picasso or hitting the music scene mere years after the time of Beethoven? In 2015, we are living in the dark ages of the graphic tee. We now find ourselves in an American Apparel-infected society in which T-shirt fashion operates under the notion that simpler is better.
The plain pocket tee has become the male version of the little black dress, appropriate for any occasion. There was a time when we knew the T-shirt made the man. Or, more accurately, we knew that the picture and/or words on the T-shirt made the man. In the heyday of the cheeky graphic tee, companies like No Fear and Big Dogs knew that while many of us wore our hearts on our sleeve, we wore our souls on our chest. Sure, the streetwear and skate/surf tees from the '90s are missed too, but those were for the cool kids. No Fear and Big Dogs? Those resonated with the average joe.
Those particular graphic tees represent a time when you could tell a man's character by the slogan on his T-shirt. You didn't have to look at a man's Facebook status to know where he stood. You simply had to look at the shirt on his back to be able to tell if he "ran with the big dogs" or believed that pain was truly "just weakness leaving the body." Sadly, these shirts now line thrift store shelves next to the oversized jeans and popped collar polos of yesteryear. These once great T-shirts have been left to fade on hangers and devoured by moths in attics.
You can keep your vintage Stüssy and Alien Workshop tees, this is an ode to the wardrobe heroes who have fallen from grace. Here's why we'll never forget these underrated graphic tee brands of the '90s.
Most likely worn by: future frat boys, bullies.
The No Fear shirt was essentially training wheels for the 'roided-up MMA gym rat douche bag you'd probably see in a TapOut tee today. These shirts were perfect for the boys who would someday grow into men who wore shirts like this:
There is a key difference between the No Fear shirts of our youth and these awful douche shirts of today. The No Fear shirt was worn by everyone on the playground, from the star peewee quarter back to the sensitive piano playing band geek just hoping to fit in. The last thing you want in late elementary school/early middle school is to not fit in. No Fear understood this, and sold the boys something they felt they needed desperately to fall in line with their playground peers: masculinity.
When you're twelve years old, you are afraid of everything. You're afraid of not being strong enough. You're afraid of not fitting in, you're afraid of anything the girls say and do. In its heyday, No Fear offered kids the opportunity to yell, "I'm not afraid!" at everyone who walked by without raising their voice. As the awkwardness of puberty hit hard, at least you could look to your shirt for confidence. When we were afraid of the fact that we were still boys, No Fear made us feel like men.
The No Fear shirt was armor against the awkward self-conscious journey of puberty. Sure, it wasn't actually effective, but that didn't stop every scared little boy from engaging in their own small version of The Emperors' New Clothes by putting on a shirt that told the world he wasn't afraid.
Most likely to be worn by: 5' 5" white kids who think they have a shot at the pros, but will never play ball again after high school graduation. Kids at basketball camp who are better at crossing people up than shooting.
AND 1 was the main competitor to No Fear, the Pepsi to its Coke, the Nike to its Reebok. While No Fear produced shirts featuring vague, tough slogans, AND 1 drew its inspiration from basketball-centric trash talk. Anyone who attended a youth basketball camp in the '90s knows that the AND 1 folks had the market cornered, and their budding series of mixtapes became street ball's answer to the '90s skate video. Many kids fondly remember stars like Sik Wit It and The Professor sonning herbs on the court, ushering in a golden era of aggressively baggy basketball style.
Most likely worn by: A lame dad or his lame ten year-old son.
If the edgy older twelve year-old brother wore No Fear shirts, you can rest assured that the less cool ten year-old little brother would be rocking a Big Dogs tee. Unlike No Fear, the Big Dogs brand still survives today, thanks to its more universal appeal. The saying that spawned the Big Dogs brand "If You Can't Run With the Big Dogs, Stay on the Porch" has been surprisingly versatile. It turns out the people from all walks of life want to be seen as "Big Dogs."
In fact, the Big Dogs brand is so strong, numerous copycats have put their own edgier stamp on it over the years.
What makes the Big Dog so appealing? Why has the Big Dog outlasted so many of its 90s brethren? What gives the Big Dog its staying power? Mankind is naturally vain, instinctively arrogant. Unfortunately, it isn't socially acceptable to walk around with a shirt that says "I'm the shit." or "I'm the fucking man" on it, if you aren't capable of executing the look with a least a hint of irony. If you wear a shirt that says, "I'm the Big Dog" there is just enough cuteness and abstraction to cover up your blatant attempt at swagger. Also, people like dogs.
Why does Big Dog gear appeal largely to boys and dads who tuck their shirts into cargo shorts? That's a harder question to answer. All we know is that if you can't handle the undeniable greatness of these shirts, perhaps you should stay on the porch.
Most likely worn by: A terrible father, the cool kid in school who was the "bad boy."
The kind of dad who wore a Big Dogs shirt was at least a little dorky. This dad is the kind who would get up early on the weekends to lie about his golf handicap or scream at the fourteen year-old refereeing your soccer game. A different kind of dad wore a Big Johnson shirt. A Big Johnson dad missed your soccer games because he was hungover from the night before. A Big Johnson dad never got up early on the weekends, and if he did, it certainly wouldn't be "to play fucking golf." A regular dad gave the babysitter a night off so he could beat you in the board game of his choice. A Big Johnson dad gave you the night off so he can try to fuck the babysitter.
That isn't to say that every '90s dad couldn't appreciate the subtle humor of Big Johnson a little bit. It's just that a normal Dad would chuckle at the shirt when he saw it on the beach boardwalk and splurge on one because "Hey, he's on vacation." A normal Dad would wear the Big Johnson shirt out to dinner that night, feel a bit embarrassed that he bought the shirt in the first place, and never wear it again, except to mow the lawn, and of course, during the next year's vacation.
It bears mentioning that while Big Johnson was far more lewd than Big Dogs, at the height of their power, Big Johnson had just as wide a variety of shirts as its canine competitor. There truly was a Big Johnson shirt for every scumbag occasion. And a kid who had the balls to wear a Big Johnson shirt to school? He would enjoy 20 minutes of sweet, sweet glory before being forced to turn it inside out or switch to another T-shirt because it was literally too cool for school.
Most likely worn by: A dad lacking the cojones to wear a Big Johnson shirt; ignorant suburban white kids.
In the '90s, there was a ridiculous T-shirt out there to fit any man's sense of decorum. If your dad wasn't square enough for a Big Dogs tee, but wasn't so bold/trashy that he could pull off Big Johnson, Chit Rodriguez was there to help occupy that sweet PG middle ground with the help of slightly racist puns.
The Chit shirt has a pretty impressive conceit. You see, the character featured in the shirts is named "Chit." "Chit" sounds remarkably like "Shit." The shirt would feature Mr. Rodriguez acting out a line that we are used to ending with the word "shit," but in this instance would end with the name of our hero, "Chit." [For those of you who lack the Oscar Wilde-level wit to grasp this clever word play, feel free to reach out on Twitter for further analysis.]
Sadly, Chit shirts have been fallen out of the cultural consciousness. It is even difficult to find solid graphics of Chit shirts online. The Chit website seems perpetually under construction. Few dads seem to carry on the Chit Rodriguez tradition outside of the bowling world.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It's a sad state of affairs, but we may be raising an entire generation of children who will never know Chit.
Most likely worn by: A guy giggling to himself thinking we don't get it. But, yeah, we get it bruh; no one actually in college.
Subtlety in the T-shirt game can only go so far. Winning the title of most subtle humorous '90s t-shirt is kind of like earning yourself the award for thinnest offensive lineman or least racist St. Louis police officer. The Coed Naked shirts won the battle of '90s T-shirt subtlety, but that is largely because no other shirts were in the competition.
The Coed Naked brand wasn't limited to just sports. Career men and women from around the country could find Coed Naked shirts of their own if they were truly desperate for HR to put a permanent end to casual Friday.
The Coed Naked brand remains popular today, and has even been appropriated to give nerds false hope that they too would someday get laid.
Most likely worn by: A girl who is definitely getting cut from the field hockey team.
Sports are life to many middle and high schoolers, and the designers of '90s T-shirts knew this. When you don't yet have a personality, you have to define yourself by the things you do. The coolest thing to do in middle school, besides getting a hand job in the back of the auditorium, is participating in sports. Once late high school comes around, kids have varsity jackets to define their social status. A great entrepreneur realized that pre-varsity jacket kids were eager to exclude their less athletic peers. And thus, a trend was born.
Don't worry: Dads found a way to wear these shirts too. When it comes to dumb T-shirts, dads always find a way.
It is important to note that after the "Just Hafta" era, there were similar looking shirts that said "[SPORT] is Life. Everything Else is Just Details." Like a conquered dynasty or an illegitimate ruler, it seems that these shirts have been scrubbed from the record. Very few examples are readily available on the Internet. I know that these were important to the early fashion life of many of you and I am sorry that I can't provide the much needed nostalgic images.
Most likely worn by: The hippie mom who flirts with you when she's drunk; the first vegetarian you met in your formative years.
Peace Frog shirts brought balance to the '90s T-shirt force. On one hand there was so much intense in-your-face masculinity brought by the No Fear, Big Dogs, and Big Johnson shirts, and on other, there was the more placid imagery of the Peace Frogs.
Just because the Peace Frogs offered a pacifist perspective in the generally macho world of '90s T-shirts doesn't mean that the Peace Frogs didn't follow the moneymaking patterns of their brethren. Peace Frogs were appropriated by a wide variety of groups and causes, just like the Big Dogs.
And, like many of these shirts, could be somewhat racist from time to time.
Most likely worn by: A girl who would someday grow into be a woman who puts "The Beach" in her online dating profile interests.
Cute T-shirt right? Don't be fooled by these seemingly innocent images. You haven't yet seen the whole picture.
That's right. What seems like a perfectly innocent shirt from the front becomes a savage double entendre when viewed from the back. It is important to note that these Beach Bums shirts we a vitally important step forward for feminism. While men had their fair share of cheeky shirts (pun very much intended), there were few truly hilarious 90s shirts aimed at girls. Beach Bums solved that problem for a generation of young feminists.
Like other great '90s T-shirts, these shirts had endless variations.
And somehow managed to get racist.
If you leave this article with nothing else, know that there's a will to make your humorous '90s T-shirt racist, there's a way to make your humorous '90s T-shirt racist.