Photos by the author.
I would like to make a serious case for adding Singapore heartland fashion to this list.
In case you’re not sure what I’m referring to, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:
To be clear, there are a lot of outfits which, despite a similar pedigree, do not qualify for the purpose of this campaign. Tourist-marketed T-shirts and tote bags with ‘SINGAPORE’ blazoned all over them, whilst impressively tacky, do not count. Nor does your bog-standard Carlsberg logo singlet or vaguely-feel-good-but-actually-commodified-to-the-point-of-nausea Cotton On slogan tee.
The specific kind of garment I have in mind can be found at your usual HDB neighbourhood/bus interchange clothes shop, hence the name. They are characterised by a) slogans with a total lack of context and a high degree of syntactic and grammatical absurdity, b) a complete disregard for design principles, and c) the necessity of being able to give no fucks whatsoever to pull off.
(While t-shirts are the most common form of this phenomenon, they are by no means the only one. In the process of researching this piece, I spotted caps, pants, wallets, and even water bottles bearing similar gems of phraseology.)
As my editor, looking over my shoulder at the photos, marveled, “This isn’t even high fashion. This is transcendent.”
Just like classical mechanics and making perfect 62-degree eggs, writing for the Internet is governed by laws, the most fundamental being that every story/article seems like a good idea until you actually begin writing it. My initial plan had been to conduct a full linguistic analysis of such slogans, in the grand tradition of undertakings like A Linguist Explains The Grammar of Doge and A Linguist Explains Benedict Cumberbatch/Bandersnatch Cummerbund/Bandicoot Cabbagepatch.
Alas, trying to do this was like trying to make sense of Ho Ching’s Facebook page.
There are ambitious projects, and then are there are mildly delusional ones. It took me five minutes of reviewing the captions to conclude that they were composed by a bot which was fed a diet of Google Translated song lyrics and Borat quotes at the machine-learning stage, or a graduate of the Derek Zoolander School For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Want To Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too.
Some things, I realised, simply defy rational explanation: you just have to shut your brain down and follow things to their (il)logical conclusion. Nonetheless, partly out of stubbornness, partly out of respect for their sheer madness, I came up with four rough categories of slogans.
A) The Pointless Platitudes of Puerile Positivity
Designs in this category sport a grammatically dubious but ideologically unassailable maxim, the sort of inane pleasantry you write just to score points in Primary 5 English compositions.
See: Exhibit A. There’s so much going on here, between the oversized ampersand, the inconsistently capitalised prepositions, and the curiously placed full stop in between ‘Love’ and ‘the’. Nonetheless, despite the questionable phrasing, I can’t really argue with the substance of the statement.
Or this equally befuddling example, whose chaos is balanced by a kind of mindless positivity. Once you get over the initial confusion (Why is the text all bunched together? What has ‘this’ London got to do with it? What is this Other London that is alluded to? Why is there a bike? Just … why?), you realise that the quote about smiles is the stuff of Hallmark cards and mass-produced mugs.
Apart from the half-capitalised sentence and the exclamation mark, both of which I’d argue are misplaced (they place unnecessary emphasis on the ‘EVERYTHING STRAIGHT’ part of the sentence), the text is perfectly pleasant and utterly forgettable.
Which really only underscores how the entire thing, taken cumulatively, boggles the mind.
B) The Bold and Individualistic (But Not Quite)
Clothes in this category are the aspiring Opposition MPs of the fashion world: all bluster and no bite. In other words, they try valiantly to assert their uniqueness, only to come across as a little bit sad.
This shirt, for example, is almost cool for its recollection of 8-bit video game aesthetics and assertion of personality, in contrast to the vanilla Platitudes category. Unfortunately, its conviction is undermined by two minor details: one, the too-large space between the ‘n’ and ‘t’ of ‘don’t, and two, that ‘crazy’ has been spelled with a G.
Then there’s this cap, which came so close to passing for normal. Alas, the insertion of the definite article turns it from an otherwise unremarkable adjective/noun construction (Original Black) into something rather more unusual (Original The Black, recalling titles like Alexander the Great and Gandalf the Grey).
Original Black = short, bold, punchy. Original The Black = ????
Lacking the skills to analyse this on my own, I texted a friend with a background in linguistics for help. After a 15-minute detour, which included digressions into Simlish and the naming conventions of Kim and Kanye’s kids, he was able to point me to the proper term for a structure like Original The Black (it’s an epithet).
However, he also gently suggested that I might be “trying to extract meaning from something that inherently might not have meaning”.
Which I don’t actually dispute; I’m sure the secret behind all this is that there is no secret. But acknowledging that something is beautiful nonsense does not preclude you from trying to pinpoint, from a linguistics standpoint, why it is so bloody weird.
We didn’t even get to the most crucial point: that the cap is, of course, brown.
C) The Sweetly Philosophical
Consider ‘Your feet in the right place, then stand firm’. Apart from the sentence missing a word or two, what is the right place? Is it literal or figurative? Meanwhile, the first shirt reads like a horoscope: fluffy, vaguely mystical; just coherent enough to kind of make sense, but abstract enough that you have no idea what it all means. Or what perfume has to do with any of it.
D) The Ones Which Resist Any Explanation Whatsoever
If you’ve made it this far, and you, like me, insist on imposing meaning on an otherwise arbitrary universe, the next question on your lips should be: “But who on earth came up with these?”
Reader, I tried to find out. The rabbit hole led me nowhere but the bowels of my own disintegrating mind. Inspecting the labels revealed a variety of places of manufacture—Myanmar, Bangladesh, China; one or two were even designed by a local label called Peniwern, which, as far as I could ascertain, sells women’s clothing in a number of second-tier malls across the island. None of this, however, told me anything about the people actually responsible for these works of art.
Unfortunately, the store assistants weren’t able to shed any light on this either. They were mainly just pissed or confused that I kept rearranging the clothes on the racks, taking photos, and then trying to sneak off without buying anything.
But the most unexpected result of my research was this: the realisation that, for the most part, nobody wears clothes like these any more.
My starting hypothesis was that clothes like this were everywhere; the only issue was finding a way to describe them. But once I’d expounded on this or produced a few reference photos, my colleagues got what I was talking about immediately. We’d grown up seeing clothes like this around our neighbourhoods, after all. I assumed I’d just need to go to one, perhaps two, HDB estates, and trawl the shops around the bus interchanges and wet markets for samples—something that shouldn’t take more than an afternoon’s work.
Instead, I ended up making two trips around Chinatown, going to three different neighbourhoods, and digging through the second-hand clothing stores on all six floors of Lucky Plaza just to cull the above photos—and they were a fraction of what I’d hoped to find.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to describe all the clothes I saw as tasteful, they were overwhelmingly, disappointingly sensible. I still probably wouldn’t want to be photographed wearing them, but nor would I be inclined to stop and gape at them in awe, in that slack-jawed, what the fuck is going on here way creations like these inspire.
Like names or food fads, fashion trends generally follow a predictable life cycle: anything that is popular (or “lowbrow”) was once either high-status or avant-garde. I cannot imagine clothes like these ever being anything but unorthodox, but the fact that they were so hard to find also says a lot about what now occupies their place in the huge middle ground of accessible, low-cost fashion.
Fast-fashion chains churn out new designs every few weeks, all to cater to consumers chasing the Holy Grails of ‘individuality’ and ‘authenticity’ (or as a temporary muffler on spiritual discontent in the age of late capitalism, depending on how cynical you are). Statement earrings, rainbow palazzo pants, and bow ties all take panache to wear well, but nothing is more inimitable than a shirt which says ‘GET TANNED (not sure that it make sence)’—or a person who doesn’t know what it means, doesn’t care, and rocks it anyway.
Most of us treat fashion, consciously or not, as an extension of our personalities. We dress for the people we think we are, or would like to be: practical, whimsical, elegant, bold. Clothes like these are so bananas they could only have been designed for the Mad Hatter, but above all, they take attitude to pull off. And that, ultimately, is the crux of style: confidence.
Which is all to say: if you’ve been after a new lewk, go get yourself one of these while you still can. After all, if people are going to stare, make it worth their while.
Were you able to make sense of the last category of shirts? Send us your theories at email@example.com.