Why I detest clothes with words on

And as for carrying a clutch bag made in the image of a book…

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

As a provincial teenage virgin with ideas so far above my station that they gave me vertigo, I frequently reflected bitterly that whoever coined the phrase ‘Schooldays are the best days of your life’ must have come to that conclusion after being involved in a serious car-crash the evening following their last day at school, probably rendering them a tetraplegic. And the little thing which summed up how thoroughly inappropriate it was was the horridness of name tags. All the wondrous beings I had it in me to be, written off by my mum’s humdrum hand in those four syllables: Julie Burchill.

Then and there, I took a violent dislike to clothing with writing on. In the 1980s I was repelled by the rise of designer clothing. Excuse me, but who ever dreamt of growing up to be a sandwich-board man, with all respect? It got even worse when the author’s message took over; top of my loathe list was the trendy tat-touter Katharine Hamnett, whose infamous T-shirts — CHOOSE LIFE, 58% DON’T WANT PERSHING— made my eyes cross in fury.

Imagine my glee when my second husband’s bezzie starting sleeping with her and we were asked over for ‘supper’; we’d barely sat down before she was dropping bons mots. ‘The young poor dress so much better than the young rich,’ she drawled. ‘That’s because the young poor can’t afford your clothes!’ I came right back. She had her boy toy show us the door, but I’ve often recalled that evening when I pass yet another halfwit walking down the street bearing the legend NO WAR, SAVE THE FUTURE or, best of all, NO MORE FASHION VICTIMS in big black letters on a baggy white T.

Most of all, I think of the immortal words of Fran Lebowitz: ‘If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?’ When I see someone wearing clothing with words on my first reaction is usually, ‘Ooo, I bet you’re really boring!’

It’s not just clothes with legends or logos on, either; it is my experience generally that the more trouble people take with their appearance, the duller the company they are. I make an exception for young things in their teens and twenties, of course, who are still in that adorable ‘the wonder of me’ phase, and who quite understandably want to gild the lily before it fades. But I am firmly of the opinion that women who fuss over their appearance in middle age (unless they are entertainers or prostitutes) are rather sad, as one should surely have something more substantial to recommend one by this time — such as kindness, spite or cleverness.

Fully functioning human beings express themselves through their words and their actions; only the voiceless are reduced to expressing themselves through the way they look. The dictionary’s first definition of the word ‘statement’ is the best: a definite or clear expression of something in speech or writing. Yet we are now offered the chance to buy statement necklaces and statement earrings and be told by Fearne Cotton — a 33-year-old woman — that ‘I like a red lip against a white dress as it makes a statement.’ Yes — it tells us that you wore red lipstick and a white dress. The words ‘female eunuch’ come to mind when confronted with such cretinism, but never more than when faced with the trend of writers and books — the opposite of looks — being co-opted into such shallow show-offery. Bella Freud’s GINSBERG IS GOD T-shirt may as well have I AM A SUB-LITERATE HALFWIT printed on the back. And as for carrying a clutch bag made in the image of a book — words fail me.

It’s not just the clothes on your back and the bag in your hand which beg for attention in lieu of personality these days, though. The new director of Tiffany, Francesca Amfitheatrof, says quite shamelessly: ‘Jewellery is a way of expressing your personality, sometimes telegraphing your social status and, ultimately, making your mark in a tangible, beautiful way.’ You can eat your words, too, by having your name printed on a jar of Nutella for less than a fiver, or waste £50 on a personalised silver Marmite jar lid. The Times reported recently that retailers reported a steep rise in the demand for ‘personalisation’, which has become ‘a right rather than a privilege’, according to retail analysts.

In a more confident era, Andy Warhol wrote:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Perhaps now that it is closing time in the gardens of the West and we contemplate a Chinese-led future, our fear of anonymity leads us to insist, over and over through the medium of monograms, that we are not numbers but free men — and here’s our personalised Coke to prove it. A third of us, according to a recent survey, feel that we are denied free speech on important issues such as immigration, religion, moral and ethical issues; never mind, sling a monogrammed Cambridge satchel over your shoulder and you’re good to go, right down that road to nowhere.

The problem is that visual signalling is an utterly useless way of establishing identity — not waving but drowning — because only ‘a definite or clear expression of something in speech or writing’ can do this. And it is crack cocaine to the insecure; I know without doubt that I am interesting and un-usual — why would I ever visit a beauty site called Feel Unique, or buy a perfume called Original (‘to inspire you to rediscover your uniqueness’) or knit a personalised Whistles beanie hat (£45 for the kit)?

Imagination, wit, originality; these are the qualities that can build a better life, both for individuals and for cultures. Rely on your possessions to express yourself, however, and you might as well walk alongside someone wearing a T-shirt bearing that immortal legend I’M WITH STUPID. Now there’s a logo I thoroughly approve of.

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Show comments
  • Michael H Kenyon

    Nicely said, Julie; perhaps The Spectator can reprint this in their next ‘bling’ supplement pushing swanky tat to the overpaid? Some of us have moved beyond the gold taps stage of Capitalism.

    • DavidL

      And well said you too.

  • vanLomborg

    Never have I worn clothes with slogans on – that would be so Westwood.
    I prefer logos of the masons, Rotary or F1 teams. People instantly warm to someone displaying good taste and class.

  • Jim

    I can just see you in a pair of jogging bottoms with ‘babe’ written on the arse, Julie.

    • prospero’s child


  • joe_publik

    I lived in America for a while and enjoyed a higher income than in dreary old Blighty. I indulged myself by having my clothes made for me, including shirts. They were very good but I drew the line at having my initials stitched on pocket and cuffs. I always believed I was unlikely to forget my name, or if I did it wouldn’t matter anyway.

    As I grew older and accumulated more sense than money I discovered Costco and to this day they remain my tailor of choice. Even there I draw the line at clothing with logos, even Levis.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Well, yeah, but I only skimmed this piece because it was, well, very boring. Space filler, column fodder. I used to subscribe to The Speccie: I hope it’s not filled with stuff from the likes of Burchill and (e.g.) Jeremy Clarke or I certainly shall not cough up for a renewed sub.
    Most clothing with prominent writing is indeed naff and boring. But I always found La Burchill boring – her having risen without a trace remains a mystery to me. Bit like belief in crop circles, or the apparent popular success of Chris Rea.

    • prospero’s child

      “her having risen without a trace remains a mystery to me”
      I know what you mean – no pedigree.

    • monty61

      Our dear Jule boring? Hardly. Wrong, frequently. Pig headed, certainly. But never boring. And ‘traces’ of her writing are pretty continuous. Has she ever been without a regular column since the late 70s?

      But I guess you regularly comment on boring articles, of no interest whatsoever?

  • LordJustin

    “The problem is that visual signalling is an utterly useless way of establishing identity”

    But it can be quite practical. Take the example of the seventies socialist diva, who found that the legend “C&A” inscribed on her knickers was an excellent way to make sure she didn’t put them on back to front.

  • Ally Gory

    I, on the other hand, detest people like you Burchill, who project your own failings onto others. I have t-shirts with writing on them and occasionally wear one because it’s clean and was first within reach. I give it no more thought than that and have little/no idea what it says on the t-shirt, because I don’t care. If you ask people what is on their t-shirts, without looking, many will be unable to tell you, as it has no significance whatsoever, they just like the general look of it, or it might be a gift from someone they’re fond of. Attaching your unhappiness like a manic leech to suck contentment from others is not an endearing personality trait Burchill. Let others enjoy a semblance of happiness in a new year and wallow in your misery in silence.

    • JimHHalpert

      Defensive much? You have no excuse unless your mother still buys your clothes for you.

      • Ally Gory

        Get your carer to read what I said again for you, as you obviously didn’t grasp it the first time.

        • prospero’s child

          You can fit all that on one t-shirt?
          You must be some chick Al.

      • Swanky

        Unfortunately, ours does — every Christmas. So I get cut-price old-lady tops with matching old-lady bling that I immediately throw out. Hubby gets drab drear colours of camouflage, most years. (This year was an acceptable button-down in navy: hurrah. Though he hardly rushed to get the shirt-mould bits out.) Next year he will finally do what I asked him to tell his mother this year: no clothes, please: we have enough. At least she never buys us t-shirts with writing on them, though!

    • monty61

      Presumably you cared enough to buy it?

      • Ally Gory

        Read it again, properly.

        • monty61

          Oh I get it, you buy your clothes from Tesco.

          • Ally Gory

            So you didn’t get wit for Christmas? Shame.

    • Harry Pond

      Why does Julie Burchill inspire such loathing in everything she writes? Every column I have ever read of hers in any publication that allows comments is followed by a stream of abuse from vexatious angry little tosspots such as yourself.

      • Ally Gory

        Because, you vacuous effort, she is seeking an excuse to condemn strangers and that makes her as unpleasant as you.

        • baroquefreezone


          • Ally Gory

            FFS let this tiresome thread die a natural death

          • Harry Pond


          • Ally Gory


          • Harry Pond


      • katy77

        At the risk of sounding like the grand dame herself, it is because they hate that a working class woman has the audacity to express herself and be published. While they read papers to find out what their next opinion should be, she thinks up hers herself. She does repeat herself a bit though.

        • Harry Pond

          I’v been reading her scribbling since the eighties on and off here and there and I’v usually agreed with most of what she comes out with. I can’t understand the bile she attracts though, it must be her stance on Islam I suppose which attracts the PC grievance brigade etc.

  • Steven Carter

    Kinda awkward article. The point was? Don’t wear clothes with words on them? Yeah. Earth-shattering.

  • davidofkent

    Most of the time I think of the Spectator as a serious magazine.

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      Nostalgia aint what it used to be…

  • Uncle Brian

    we contemplate a Chinese-led future … I’m glad to see you haven’t lost your bubbly optimism, Julie. A lot of us are contemplating a Caliphate-led future.

  • William Cameron

    Visible logos on clothing are certainly “naff” but nowhere near as infradig and plain nasty as anything written by Julie Burchill 😉

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    I bought one of my teenagers a sweater with the logo ” stupid” all over the front..on further reflection perhaps I’d better get one with ” I’m not with stupid”..

  • Swanky

    I hate Coke. But my darling, who is the most morally serious person I know if we don’t count me, loves soda pop (‘diet’, meaning artificially sweetened). The world is complex and so is desire: never forget it.

    • prospero’s child

      Pss – what’s a “bezzie” – does your husband have one?

      • Swanky

        ‘best friend?’ Beats me. But if it IS ‘best friend’, I’m it. By the way, some idiot I was trying to help, who thinks that Plato didn’t like Socrates(!), has got annoyed with me for directing him to an interpretive essay he doesn’t want to see. As I told him, I deserve his thanks not abuse! Gosh the Internet brings out a lot of nastiness, doesn’t it? What the h=ll is wrong with some people?

        • prospero’s child

          Some people are indeed thoroughly unpleasant. I take the view that it is better to run into them online than to meet them at that christmas party from hell, and anyway, it’s reassuring to realise how sane and well-balanced we are (odd foibles notwithstanding).

          Talking of sane and well balanced, I see that Fergus Pickering has been blocked. Well he will find his way back soon I’m sure.

          • Swanky

            Thanks for that, P. C. I wonder how you learned that about Pickering. There are so many commenters, I can’t keep track of them all. When I don’t see them, I just assume they’re busy with other things. But who knows?

            In other news, the toxicity of family is out of my system. I’m training Dad to think I rarely check my email. Ma’s messages are filtered directly to Delete. Ignorance is bliss. As is silence.

          • prospero’s child

            Glad to hear your family are under control. If you are anything like me, once you get over your (justified) strop you put things into perspective.
            I found out about Pickering by accident – came across a post from a month ago where he mentioned being blocked. Pure serendipity, my years of pottering aimlessly around second hand bookshops has honed this strange talent.

          • S

            That’s a good question, G. I’m never sure what people mean about being blocked. If they like, they always come back.

            My gut feeling was that my family were shabby and unloving, and my mature consideration is that they were shabby and unloving. The sting is gone but the judgement remains: hasta la vista, baby!

          • prospero’s child

            PS: No need to be formal. You may call me G.

  • Gwangi

    Yep, I thought those ‘THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE’ T-shirts were absurd too; THIS IS WHAT A GULLIBLE PRATTT LOOKS LIKE’ was what they REALLY said (because it was all just a PR campaign for Elle magazine, which is owned by a French company which, until last year, was a major producer of arms and bombs). Harriet Harman eh? What a dunce!

  • Popular Front

    OK, so you don’t like t-shirts with logos etc on them. Fine, then don’t wear any but does that set you up as the Grand Pooh-Ba arbitrator over what other people can or cannot wear? No it does not. Does your dislike extend to supporters shirts worn on game day? Spectator readers can also be football fans, they are not mutually exclusive pastimes.

  • berosos_bubos

    So you must really detest tatoos which can’t be removed (easily) at all ?

  • john green

    Railing against t-shirt slogans?! As it says on my beloved Terry-Thomas t-shirt: ‘You’re an absolute shower!’

  • Perseus Slade

    I don`t like words with clothes on either.
    I prefer naked words that are meaningful and punchy
    not waffle.

    • prospero’s child

      Depends who’s wearing them.

  • andHarry

    Excellent essay about the ego. Even the precariously positioned machine
    on the turd-shaped rock was sending back selfies for a while. We live in the Age of
    the Celebrities. However the alternative offered cannot protect us from
    mortality. I wear baseball caps with assorted logos; if the cap fits – literally. I like T-shirts which point away from the wearer. At one
    time I envied the Che Guevara wearer, but did not have the self-image
    continuity to wear it; and now I know him for what he really was. He
    had other less attractive faces. Now I envy the spirit of the guy in
    Ireland who for years unfurled his John 3:6 banner behind the goals –
    and whether true or false it will sustain him when, eventually, ‘Imagination, wit, originality’ fail or even threaten.

  • trace9

    Another pair of Tits.
    If Tits were Wits
    I’d need more Tits
    But it’s just another pair, of Tits..

    – On Bitchy-Birchy..

  • Turtle of Australia

    Homer Simpson’s ‘Max Powers’ shirt was great. Not a monogram. ‘Max Powers does not abbreviate. Each letter is as important as the one that precedes it. Maybe more important… No, as important.
    James Delingpole’s ‘I [love] fossil fuels’ T-Shirt was also great.

  • treborc1

    When I was younger a girl worse you can have sex if you like, I said do you mean this and she said yes £10 , advertising her trade.

    So it’s not all boring and I did pay.

  • baroquefreezone

    Excellent piece, many thanks. Couldn’t agree more with every sentence.

  • Tali

    Well, I hope this article won’t make you guys leapfrog over a new shop I opened. Terrible taste though it be to post here… https://www.etsy.com/listing/217530624/fat-to-the-bone-hipster-t-shirt-beards? Just call me Gilbert

  • Aberrant_Apostrophe

    I’m not convinced visual signalling is all bad. Only yesterday I was served by a lovely barmaid with the words ‘Customer Outreach’ printed on her tee shirt, which just happened to be located right across her ample bosom.

  • Nele Schindler

    I love this, thank you Julie. 🙂