Why I'm Making T-Shirts Now

People have been asking me ever since I started the business if I’m ever going to sell any of my own creations. It’s a reasonable question, after all, I’ve got a piece of paper from UW-Madison that leads many to erroneously believe I could be a legit contender on Project Runway.

The truth is, I never took to sewing, pattern making, or any of the engineering that is a part of making a real-life garment very well. I always really loved the fashion illustration classes I had, though. So recently, when the latest person asked me when something I made is going make an appearance in the shop, I started thinking, how do I bring my drawings into focus as something that is wearable?

I admit, I feel a little silly for taking this long to think of t-shirts. It seems pretty obvious, right? But I think we all tend to take a t-shirt for granted. I wandered into a boutique in New York once and saw a t-shirt for $400 (the kicker here was that I was wearing a nearly identical one that I had probably purchased at Target for $14). If your jaw hit the ground at that, or you’re laughing, I think my point stands. We don’t value a t-shirt much. And yet, they are ubiquitous, the ultimate blank canvas for wearable art, easily emblazoned with everything from the kitschy slogan letting your friend know you were thinking of them on your latest trip, to a short quip about your personal values or beliefs, or to a design that marks you as a devout follower of your favorite band - and it’s this last point that I really want to examine.

T-shirts have a part of band culture since time immemorial. I’ve known people to build entire wardrobes out of band shirts. I own multiple Alice Cooper pieces, and heck, when his online shop advertises a sale, I’m usually quick to buy another. And I will almost always buy a t-shirt at a concert, regardless of price. It’s a memento, I tell myself, because a part of me wants to hold onto the memory of every single show I see, and for some reason, a shirt scratches that itch in a way nothing else seems to. And as a frontperson for a young band, I have been given the wisdom, “print t-shirts for your merch table. They may not buy a CD or vinyl of your album, but they’ll buy a shirt” - and just from looking at myself, it’s true!

So what is it that makes this simple piece of clothing have such a powerful draw? Maybe it’s because of the act of physically surrounding yourself with the fabric has some kind of psychological connection to an embrace by this thing you love, or something flowery like that. Or perhaps it’s a kind of practicality - on a very basic level, you’re clothing yourself, which is a human need and maybe what makes it easier for us to impulse buy wearable art than something we hang on a wall. Maybe it’s a sense of community - it’s hard to deny the connection you feel with the rest of the audience at a show when you’re one in a sea of various t-shirts from assorted tours, all preaching your fidelity to the group on stage. Maybe like robes in a cult? (Kidding) But in all seriousness, look at what music has the power to make us feel. I would argue it’s spiritual, on par with what some people get out of religion. And I think organized religion is very much about community, about identifying yourself with others who have the same range of values. Could it be that when we wear a band shirt, and later see someone else wearing it, we think, even if on a subconscious level, “this person also understands the nearly indescribable experience I get from this art”?

So, to tie this back to why I’m designing t-shirts now, 1) I think while t-shirts are often overlooked and generally not seen as “high fashion” or “fine art”, we do connect with them on a deep level. It seems to me that it’s a great space to let my little drawings live. 2) A large part of the point Toni Rose for me is to celebrate the lifestyle of being a creative type, and I believe the graphic tee is definitely a part of that lifestyle, as shown by the band shirt example. So I hope you’ll enjoy seeing the Toni Rose t-shirt collection grow, and even participate in honoring this humble art form!

I'm a bleeding heart for all things art & music - what about you?

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