"Voting is for old people" hasn’t reached the hallowed heights of banal t-shirt slogans; it’s no "I ♥ NY" or "Virginia is for lovers." It’s not even "Pennsylvania has intercourse". But when the commodifiers of dubiously hip at Urban Outfitters offered the shirt for sale, hoping to make a few bucks off camp, it triggered a very brief media frenzy. The fact that the founder of Urban Outfilters is a semi-closeted conservative, a financial backer of Sen. Rick Santorum, gave the story a little bit of bite, but mostly the concern seems to have been that someone was attempting to make money from teenagers willing to drop thirty bucks on a cheaply made shirt to advertise their apathy. But advertising has always been the t-shirts job; although the plain white t-shirt spread into America thanks to the U.S. Navy (with assists from Marlon Brando and James Dean), it really came into its own when someone realized it could turn the wearer into a walking billboard. People have been proclaiming their political identity through their t-shirts since at least 1948. And politics wasn’t all. You could announce your loyalty to a college, a band, a beer. And so the t-shirt expanded to fill every available niche. Entire personal histories could be assembled from t-shirts; entire histories of a social milieu could be put together, in fact. In earlier times, people needed to announce their political loyalties via an oddly-shaped helmet, their sexual orientation via the flower in their lapel. This could be confusing; Wilde’s dandyism was not necessarily a signifier of homosexuality, although it was certainly marked, and the flower’s adoption as anything other than a personal symbol puzzled Wilde:
[W]hen asked what the green carnation signified, he replied: "Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess". When a novel was published anonymously with the title The Green Carnation in 1894, satirising the relationship between Wilde and Bosie Douglas, and Wilde was suspected of being its author, he wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette:
I invented that magnificent flower. But with the middle-class and mediocre book that usurps its strangely beautiful name I have, I need hardly say, nothing whatsoever to do. The flower is a work of art. The book is not.
Noël Coward, who penned the lines "For the Nineties being gay, / We all wear a green carnation," might not have had any doubts what the flower meant, but things could be dashedly difficult to figure out. When Merle Haggard gave voice to what he calls the "collective demeanor of America at the time," he contrasted the "manly footwear" of Muskogee‘s leather boots with the beads and Roman sandals of San Francisco’s decadent hippies, but a few years later leather boots in San Francisco meant "manly footwear" to an entirely different audience.
Making a mistake about what you said with your clothes could be problematic, even beyond possibly unwanted romantic advances. For instance, the two chief non-Beatlemania youth movements in 1960s England, the mods and rockers, were deadly serious. Rockers listened to rock and roll, rode motorcycles, and wore leather; mods listened to jazz, rode Vespas, and wore expensive suits, often tailored to the point of parody. (The mods had grown out of teddy boys, the faux-Edwardian working class roughnecks who had appeared in post-war England with cash burning holes in their crushed velvet pockets and idle hands to do the devil’s work.) Mods and rockers both carried knives and liked to cut people who disagreed with them about what to listen to, what to ride, and what to wear. A 1964 riot that broke out involved hundreds of mods and rockers and resulted in two hospitalizations, fifty-one arrests, and a decent rock opera. Pity the ambiguous young man trying to choose an outfit to offend neither side; with the help of a t-shirt, he could have made sure everyone knew that he subscribed to Ringo’s philosophy, announced in A Hard Day’s Night: when asked about his allegiance, Ringo announced that he was a "mocker". And who doesn’t want their t-shirt to proclaim them a mocker, rather than someone being mocked?