Have you ever worn a shirt with a curse word on it? I have—and you get a lot of looks for it.
The looks aren’t all the same though. When I wear my Mike Kelley “pants shitter” t-shirt, the effect isn’t the same as when a child wears it. In fact, a mother shielded her kid’s eyes from me. I walked faster, heat behind my ears, feeling my temples become uncomfortable with sweat. I became moist and the shirt was all of a sudden too tight and everyone in the entire world could see me because that mother and child saw that I wore a shirt that joked about shitting my pants in that exact language.
I have another shirt that reads “WAKE UP, JACK OFF, CRY” and it gets looks too. This one is more subtle and festive and inspires double and triple takes, sometimes laughs, sometimes even a comment that “the shirt is great.” But it’s still mentally constricting, a psychological gripping around my chest that I’m doing something wrong for wearing it. It takes a certain amount of confidence to wear clothing that boasts filthy language but it is certainly an experience. It’s a type of performance art, a sartorial happening for you and all you encounter. You don’t wear clothing with curse words on them and expect for no one to say anything to you.
Does this change if you don’t know that you are wearing a curse word or if those around you don’t speak the language of the curse? This upends the notion of cursed clothing being taboo as they pass as foreign characters playing roles in a strictly visual language. A fascinating tension is created between those in-the-know and those who have no idea what the clothing says.
As Dangerous Minds reports (“reports”), wearing inappropriate clothing has become a trend in some Asian countries. The claim is somewhat unsubstantiated as it’s an excuse to compile images of unwitting person wearing shirts that say things they would never approve of but it gets at something fascinating: if you don’t know that something is inappropriate, does it matter that it is inappropriate? If the pants shitter shirt I was wearing was, unbeknownst to me, about defecating on my person, I would have worn it very happily since I liked how it looked. The real power of clothing as such is being in on the joke, knowing very well that you’re skirting the taboo and pushing boundaries by flaunting inappropriate fashion.
There’s also a power here, a significance that goes beyond sensation: this clothing attempts to subvert stereotypes and sophistication. When I lived in Korea, inappropriate shirts were worn and a good amount of people didn’t know what the shirts said. However, the majority of people I met spoke English and had no trouble communicating with me, a non-Korean speaker. This is not surprising as English is required in schools and only 45% of Koreans have limited English proficiency. It’s a stretch either way to say that people are completely in the dark or completely cognizant of bad words on clothing.
— Nader Alsarras (@NaderAlsarras) August 16, 2016
A perfect example of this: the above tote bag. While many do not speak Arabic, the above bag was designed to fuck with language assumptions to terrify those who assume such a script is associated with terrorism. As the bag’s designers—Sana Jammalieh and Haitham Haddad—shared with Al Jazeera, the “Arabic language is being victimised and the whole Arab nation is being victimised and automatically related to terrorism” just because some terrorists speak the language. The bag plays into the notions of salacious fashion and jarring words on clothing by taking it a step forward to say nothing. This is essentially the opposite of a wearer being unaware of a language’s intention but instead the manipulating the viewer to have a knee jerk reaction based on nothing but bias.
In a sense, that brings us back to the mother who shielded her child from my pants shitting shirt: instead of being a claim that I participated in the act, the shirt is a recreation of a lauded artwork that suggests the failings and follies of adult youth, of the American dream weighing us down to the point of infantilized adulting. It’s not that the statements are fact but that they are assumed to suggest a tension between the actor and the actions.
Wearing curse words is about much more than shock: it’s a game of comprehension and understanding on both ends. It creates a performer and a viewer. To wear curse words is to go beyond shock and into a space of great assumption, for people to project their tastes and values onto you. It’s an exercise in understanding and misunderstanding.