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  • Cathy Allie

The Fashion Dilemma and the Cotton Solution, A Graphic Tee Love Story

Woman looking at clothes displayed on hangers hanging on a rod

Well after I had crossed into my 50's and headed south toward 60, I faced a fashion dilemma. Desiring not to look exactly like my teenage daughter nor my octogenarian mother, I languished in cardigans and black pants. I told myself that just a colorful print blouse with the right jewelry, a pair of sensible flats or a trendy black pump, and I was set for about any occasion. But I felt I lacked a certain panache and was seeking a somewhat updated appearance.

I ended up taking my fashion inspiration from Dame Helen Mirren who in an AARP feature (yes, I realize the irony of taking updated fashion advice from AARP) sported a printed skirt, bright green canvas tennis shoes, and a cropped denim jacket. And peeking out from under the jacket was a right proper graphic tee. If it was good enough for a Dame, then it was good enough for me. Stylish, comfortable cotton, versatile, and likely affordable. Perfect.

As luck – or Facebook algorithms would have it – the very next morning a graphic tee near and dear to my heart popped up on my feed. "Oxford Comma Appreciation Society" it read, and I ordered it with no regrets. A sensible navy blue with white letters, it went with everything.  Except...maybe not all my audiences. At lunch with other retired teachers, I had several admirers, but at a school concert the same night, one of the moms read my chest – more on this later – and said, "I think my mom used to belong to that group. Do you meet at the big church downtown?" Maybe I just needed another message.

Graphic tee #2 was actually meant as a practical joke on my daughter. She and her friends were in a crop top phase, and constantly being confronted with naked navels was driving me crazy. I told her if she didn't stop wearing them, I was going to start wearing them. She was relatively unfazed by my threat but knows me well enough to guess I might be serious.

A friend who was following the bare middle drama told me about a little boutique that was selling crop tops for women our age. She smiled conspiratorially when she said, "It is a maize-colored shirt with a big ear of corn and the words Crop Top right across the front.” I was sold. To shorten this narrative a bit, and jump to the “corny” ending, my daughter was not amused. See attached photographic evidence.

My third graphic tee was purchased on a vacation, which in retrospect is never a good idea. The salt-washed red shirt reads "Drinks Well With Others" and was darling for our carefree days at the beach. But the number of both men and women staring at my chest at the airport for our flight home had me cowering from embarrassment.  

Could it be this graphic tee business wasn't for me after all? Raised in a family where we were taught not to quit, I persisted, and purchased a Ruth Bader Ginsberg-inspired shirt proclaiming that nevertheless she too, persisted. It even has a little iron-on set of pearls at the collar. It remains a favorite in my ever growing pile of wearable messages.

Photo 1: Cathy models her vacation tee. / Photo 2: While wearing her tongue-in-cheek crop top tee, Cathy achieves the desired reaction from her teenager daughter. / Photo 3: Once a teacher, always a teacher. This graphic tee gets a laugh and teaches a lesson.

I have since purchased a "Let's eat kids" followed by "Let's eat, kids" followed by the tagline "PUNCTUATION SAVES LIVES." tee; a decidedly pink Barbie silhouette tee (because even though I really liked Midge better back in the day, I joined a movie preview party and we all matched); and a couple of concert tees for bands I have never seen and likely never will, since they are defunct. I actually was a member of the KISS Army back in the day, and I regret not saving the T-shirt on which Gene Simmons spit fake blood at a 1978 Rupp Arena show. But when I wear my Beatles tee, whom I never saw in concert, it is always a conversation starter.

I gently rooked my husband into the graphic tee business, and while he refused to wear his with a skirt, we looked pretty cute in our "She's My Sweet Potato" and "I Yam" matching rust-colored shirts, which debuted this Thanksgiving. I snagged a Waffle House T-shirt for him that, unless I am just imagining it, even sort of smells like crispy hash browns. His fave is the Declaration of Independence T-shirt I bought for this last 4th of July which reads, “Crap. That’s due tomorrow? – Thomas Jefferson, July 3, 1776.”

I will say that the tees have drawn some positive attention. At one of the schools where I consult, I wore a regular blouse one day, and several staff members expressed disappointment that I had not provided them with a good graphic tee laugh for the day. When I returned to the school wearing a sadly inadequate Christmas graphic tee which said, "Resting Grinch Face," they giggled and then presented me with a Christmas present from their staff. It was a sweatshirt with the simple phrase, "I'm a Delight" boldly emblazoned across the chest. Well played, staff, well played.

My last purchases have been more thoughtful and perhaps less clever: A "Humankind" tee with a rainbow of tan hands, a Fisher Price Little People shirt for a nod to the pre-school at which I do some work, and a "Be Real, Not Perfect" in a lovely mint green color. If you are counting tees, you are probably thinking enough already. To which I have this response, written aptly on a recent acquisition, "Sorry I Rolled My Eyes Out Loud Again."

I caught an interview with Helen Mirren about a month ago, and she had switched out the layered graphic tee look for a high-collared shirt with a ruffle at the neck and lacing which looked like her corset had escaped its proper midsection placement and risen right up to her throat. It appears the Grande Dame has deserted me, and this time I won’t be chasing her stylish look. Instead, I grabbed another tee to express my sentiments about winter: “Winter (noun): The three month break between a woman and her razor.” Take that, Dame Helen.  


Smiling woman

Cathy Allie is a retired English teacher and Communications Director, who now works as an educational consultant. She has had stints as a curriculum coordinator, political junkie, and church secretary who had hopes for a plus size model gig until she learned she would have to wear heels. The adjectives snarky, suspicious, and exhausted are all ones she gladly accepts as descriptors.


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1 Comment

Feb 22

What a fun read! I especially like the “Crop Top” tee and the reaction it got. :-) Good for the youths to know we “olds” still have a sharp sense of humor.

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