25 January 2023

The rise, fall, and rise again of the ironic tee

From ‘Stop Being Poor’ clap backs to ‘Niche internet micro celebrity’ tees, HUNGER investigates how the ironic t-shirt will always be the moment – and why big fashion brands should sit this one out.

The internet is a cesspit of ironic iykyk memefied humour. Whilst the list of things that would put a Victorian child into a coma is ever-expanding on TikTok, the only way to find your crowd is to explicitly show it somehow. And whilst we all understand the different levels of comedy and what tickles one may not another, there is a genre of fashion that encapsulates the zeitgeist of niche Gen Z humour, and only a few actually get it right: the ironic tee. 

The most recent, and, quite frankly, cringiest example, has to be when Hailey Beiber stepped out in her ‘nepo baby’ tee. “I respect the nepo baby t-shirt attempt,” tweeted Charli XCX in response to Bieber. Yes, “attempt.” The claws were out as the not-so-ironic tee got a swift clamping, and Charli XCX empathetically acknowledged the flop as the internet dug up her own tee that read ‘They don’t build statues of critics’ in the wake of her album Crash set to drop the next day. Now that was iconic. So what makes an ironic tee work? Were the hours and hours of internet scrolling and meme curating all for nothing?

In all honesty, the number of factors that go into the perfectly ironic tee go way past what mildly funny phrase is printed, and into the complicated world of memes. Before 2023, the ironic tee was the clap-back tee, circa Y2K. Think Britney Spears’ ‘Dump Him’ and ‘I am the American Dream’; Paris Hilton’s ‘Stop Being Poor’ and ‘Don’t Be Jealous’; Lindsay Lohan’s ‘Skinny Bitch’. They were prime Hollywood bimbo turned self-aware icons and a play on the culture of cruel paparazzi that sent camera crews into a frenzy of flashes. Charli XCX only revived the clap-back tee and proved that it would never die. 

But as people realise the power of the ironic tee, it evolved into a statement for the masses, where clap-back turned to protest, and runways got a political makeover without having to spend months sewing their messages into hidden seams. It all started in the 70s, when the slogan tee was done best by Vivienne Westwood, ‘Be reasonable, demand the impossible.’ It spread to the likes of Katherine Hamnett in the 80s, with the famous Wham! ‘Choose Life’ and Thatcher-bashing ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing.’

As the political tee dulled down, the tongue-in-cheek tee took hold, not necessarily demanding a new bill for change but political all the same. For his SS06 runway, McQueen wore his ‘We love you Kate!’ tee as the famous model Kate Moss was facing accusations of cocaine use. Notable mentions have to include Henry Holland and his slew of cheeky model t-shirts, like ‘Do me daily Christopher Bailey’ and ‘Cause me pain Heidi Slimane’, as well as Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior wearing ‘We should all be feminists’ tee, that she later sold for a few hundred pounds. Though they may have made a statement, the shirts were slightly bland and not as political or revolutionary as they should have been for the times. 

As we reach the present day, however, the ironic tee has cemented itself as the pinnacle of time-sensitive humour and opportune politics. The thing about winning with an ironic tee is it has to be poignant. You have to wear the tee, not the tee to wear you (here’s looking at Hailey Beiber). The oversaturated, slightly crude pop culture characters and niche phrases plastered on baby tees are the way to do it in 2023. Low-end tatt, high-end price tag. But fashion is widening its scope to what makes low culture high (literally the monetary value), as people take on their own DIY ironic t-shirts on the likes of Depop and through diamond charity finds. Fashion products themselves are being memefied; all it takes is a case of the tabis to turn you into fashion’s very own butt of the joke. 

But luxury fashion just does not do it as well as it should, take Heaven by Marc Jacobs trying their hand with ‘Heal me’, or designer Lois Saunders with ‘Fuck me’ and ‘Lick me.’ Good stuff, but in the words of Charli XCX, still an “attempt.” To truly spill the tee in 2023, it has to be memeable. ‘Niche internet micro celebrity’ and ‘Crytpo is for virgins’ are circling through the t-shirt sphere, as self-aware mini influencers crop theirs for the gram, and nonsensical ‘World’s Best Grandpa’ or ‘This t-shirt stays on during sex’ to complete the outfit of a 20-something headed to Sunday brunch is simply top marks. 

OGBFF is the ultimate slogan brand that has the whole thing down pat, balancing campness with internet memes. But for those engulfed by chronic Gen Z humour, the one step further is the most random and crude ironic t-shirts, like that on the Instagram of @goodshirts, who manage to find the weirdest and most wonderful graphic creations out there. Topical, nonsensical, and eyebrow-raising, because sometimes two words just aren’t enough, you need a whole truck of memes to finish it off. ‘Don’t slut-shame, slut-celebrate’ one reads, ‘Rest in Peace Princess Diana’ says another, next to a picture of Owen Wilson.

So as true ironic tees are back on the rise, after a few major flops, we can only look to the deep dark corners of the web to resurrect them; memes and niche internet humour galore. But for fashion in 2023, maybe big brands should sit this one out, as they just don’t pull it off quite the same. Here’s to looking at the worst t-shirts for the best year of ironic tees. 

  • Writer Ella Chadwick
  • Banner Image Credit Instagram @ogbff_

Related Content