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.

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.

Those qualities emerge partly from the material conditions of the t-shirt's creation: cheap labor and cheap materials combine to offer a purposefully temporary product, one that doesn't deserve even commodity status. One of Žižek's behavioral ticks draws constant attention to the shirt's material form: a frequent pinching at its surface below the neck, visible during lectures and interviews. No matter what Žižek is talking about, he's also always talking about his t-shirt.

However, Žižek does not simply don clothes so as to later strip or discard them. Instead, the shirt becomes yet another example of theoretical reversal. The black t-shirt has an agenda based on erasure and anonymity, but it is also reflexive, turning on the body that wears it. Žižek wears the black t-shirt as a mask, as a way of making sure that he looks like the mass of slobs that Louis CK hides in. When Louis CK dons the black t-shirt, he becomes the average American man. When Žižek does, he becomes a parody of himself: from erratic philosopher to caricature, intellectual to crackpot. From that position he is free to do or say anything that he wants. By creating a joke of himself, Žižek undermines the very words he speaks.

Jobs on stage at WWDC 2007 (Flickr/Ben Stanfield)

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs didn't wear black t-shirts, not exactly. After rebooting Apple in the late 1990s, Jobs always wore a futuristic black turtleneck for his famous keynotes. Even though he took the stage like a comedian or a revolutionary might do, Jobs' uniform was always more Star Trek than country trek. Turtleneck tucked into dark jeans, Jobs aspired for the look of an artist more than that of a working stiff. Black shirt as a symbol of the purity of form, of design itself. It seems straightforward enough.

But then, why did Jobs always push his sleeves up? In photo after photo you can see Steve Jobs holding the latest iPhone aloft. His long sleeves are pushed up toward his elbows. Is it to disassociate the turtleneck from the gadget? Does low-tech black cloth risk infecting the shiny future of the technology in photographic close ups? Does the flesh of hand and arm make our connection to devices feel more human?

Louis CK and Slavoj Žižek show us how the black t-shirt can become a strategic garment: powerful, white men use these shirts to make themselves seem anything but.

For Steve Jobs, the black t-shirt isn't a camouflage or a mask. It is a gesture of good will. It is a signal that, yes, we are all in the same boat here. The sycophants who flock to Jobs' products, events, and legacy buy into the common belief that Steve Jobs was just like us until he put together metal, plastic, and labor in such a way that he could corner a market. By connecting his public self with the black t-shirt's image, he's made black stitched cloth more universally human than it ever has been before. You could have been like Steve Jobs, and more importantly, Steve Jobs is just like you.

Jobs can turn anything he touches into a pop idol by holding it up for the cameras at just the right angle. He turned Apple into a business that makes the consumer electronics equivalent of black t-shirts. Look around you; who isn't wearing an iPhone? And if they're not, who doesn't want to? That's why he rolls up his sleeves: it's not the gesture of the craftsman or the model, but that of the magician.

Like any magician, Jobs' gesture is really just a trick, a slight-of-hand that converts something familiar and well-trod into something seemingly new. It shouldn't be surprising. After all, this is the man who changed the world with a smartphone featuring a faux-wood newsstand. Keep the old methods of production, of sewing shirts from dyed clothed from cotton imported from across the world, but recast it as innovation. Žižek would be giddy with excitement over the most appropriate phrase to describe this phenomenon: here's the new boss, same as the old boss.

Such is the mantra of the black t-shirt: the same old thing in the guise of something new and different. Louis CK walks around onstage under bright lights in front of thousands of people while giving a long monologue about flying first class and we still idolize him as an average American Joe working his way through the world. Slavoj Žižek sells tens of thousands of copies of his esoteric books and speaks to audiences of adherents who hang on his every word, but we still think of him as a joke, an outlier, an oddity, someone who has barely made it. Steve Jobs left us an enduring image of design that gets out of the way, but iDevices and MacBooks only do so by remaining constantly in the way, in everyone's hands and on everyone's desks.

The black t-shirt never succeeds in eradicating the person who wears it. We can always turn the shirt inside out and look at the carefully-stitched seams or the tag that's printed or pressed into the inside. We can always find the material history of the shirt if we look for it carefully and ignore the way it presents itself to us without a history, totally clean.

It's trickier to do the same with the shirt's acolytes. We recognize Louis CK and Slavoj Žižek and Steve Jobs when they stumble onstage, but the t-shirt is always there too, making it harder to see whoever is behind it. They stand in front of us as powerful figures who only become more powerful when they appear to be as weak as possible, thanks to their black t-shirts. A disillusionment might be necessary, a revolt against the shirt's magic that causes us to take these powerful men, flip them inside out, and trace how we came to think so much of them.