Black T-Shirts: The Original Invisibility Cloaks

Steve Jobs had his black turtleneck. Slavoj Žižek and Louis CK have their short sleeves. What is it with powerful men and undistinguished clothing? An Object Lesson.
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Ian Bogost

Where are black t-shirts made? I assume that there is a factory is southeast Asia where workers break their hands and backs to churn out identical shirts of various shapes, sizes, and cloth qualities that will then be branded, printed, stamped, tagged, or twine-looped with the names of clothing brands and rock bands, major and obscure. Some of these shirts are vacuum-packed, stacked on pallets, loaded into shipping containers, and they eventually reach me via my local Target or Gap or Urban Outfitters, ready to make me feel comfortable, young, and v-necked. Others are stacked in "value pack" quantities and sealed in polybags to be distributed around the world to be used for pajamas, for workout clothes, or for disaffected teenagers closer to a Wal-Mart than a Hot Topic.

I'm just guessing. I don't know if that's where black t-shirts come from. I don't know how they are produced, and I don't know the demographics of their creators. Like almost every other consumer good, the origins of the black t-shirt remain obscured. Most of the time, t-shirts simply appear like magic in a store. Hanes doesn't tell you about the cotton fields that adorn its plastic wrapper. Fruit of the Loom doesn't explain how many annual industrial accidents are acceptable before a factory becomes a liability.

Such is the case for all t-shirts, really. But the black t-shirt is different. Others become infected by the virus of style, trends that come and go. Black t-shirts remain oblivious. They bear no unique features, but only the absence of feature, even of hue. The black t-shirt is cheap and replaceable. Your lack of investment in its particulars is unmatched. Black bloc protesters discovered this fact years ago, what the black t-shirt has known all along -- unanimity is anonymity, and anonymity is politics.

What does it mean to wear a black t-shirt? This question is best answered through the garment's emissaries, by way of three celebrities known for their black t-shirt wearing: the comedian Louis CK, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and the businessman Steve Jobs. All three have distinct relationships with their black shirts, and even more distinct relationships to the world. And yet, their tees are similar to ours. They wear them with the same nonchalance as anyone.


Flickr/Wes Bryant

Louis CK is the American dream made real, in all of its troubled glory. He's a middle aged white man who worked his way up through the ranks of stand-up comedy to become a powerful creator of contemporary television. His show Louie is among the most celebrated programs in an already plentiful Golden Age of cable TV, and a large part of its charm and success comes from its a semi-fictionalized depiction of its creator, whose main source of sadness in life is that he knows he should be happier.

The opening credits summarize things: Louis CK walks up the stairs from a New York City subway station and travels through a sea of people who neither recognize nor care about a disaffected balding man. He eats half of a slice of pizza and The Comedy Cellar. Throughout, he wears a black t-shirt and jeans, his uniform, his middle finger to the lures of celebrity and the ways in which fame necessitates attachment with a fashion designer and a car company and a certain brand of cellular phone.

The black t-shirt of Louis CK's opening credits and of his sold-out stage is a camouflage. It is a reassuring pat on the back,from Louie to you and me, a sign that he's aware of his power but wants to deflate it. The shirt has the power to render oneself invisible, anonymous, just another human being wearing a nondescript piece of clothing in world of people doing the same. But when it becomes a uniform, the black t-shirt becomes more than just a style chosen for a particular day. It becomes a way of mediating the relationship between self and world. Self-deprecating humor is Louis CK's trademark, and the black t-shirt makes that aesthetic concrete and visible. It makes the form of the comedian-as-celebrity recede even as Louis CK stands right in front of us. Louis CK is a famous comedian but also kind of a generic slob who could be replaced by any other generic slob. The black t-shirt magically makes him both all at once.


Žižek with an acolyte at a book signing in Portland (Flickr/April Younglove)

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek ventures into his kitchen, a documentary film crew trailing him. Žižek, wearing a black t-shirt, opens his cabinets to reveal not pots and pans, not canned peaches or sugary cereal, but all of his clothing. The clothes lose definition in the cabinets. A lumpy surface of black spotted here and there with bright green or red. The cabinet reveals the black t-shirt in its natural habitat, lumped together, inchoate.

Žižek's builds upon the theories of G.W.F. Hegel and Jacques Lacan by way of popular media and culture. This fusion has always carried a political edge, mixing poststructuralist distrust of authority with a claim that the only way out of the current violence of capitalism is through communist uprising. Amplified by an erratic personality, this purposeful defiance has launched Žižek into the constellations of radical leftist stardom and has turned him into a recurrent commentator on contemporary politics, philosophy, and film ("If you ask me for really dangerous ideological films, for ideology at its purest, I'd say Kung Fu Panda."). Adopting a purposefully thorny attitude, Žižek's attacks on capitalism usually involve the reversal of some well-worn bit of neoliberal or radical wisdom (he doesn't seem to discriminate). For example, Žižek's call to action for the Occupy movement is "don't act, just think," a contrast to the political movement so well explained in the sign/call to action "shit is fucked up and bullshit."

Much like Louis CK, Žižek makes public appearances in a black t-shirt so often that the garment becomes a uniform. In my mind's eye, Žižek's t-shirt is stained, threadbare, faded, ready to be discarded at a moment's notice. If Louis CK adopts the symbolic and aesthetic qualities of the black t-shirt for camouflage, then Žižek actively embraces the shirt's strategic quality of being replaceable.

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Cameron Kunzelman

Cameron Kunzelman writes regularly about video games, comic books, film, and philosophy at This Cage Is Worms.

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