Who gets to wear a shirt that says “Margaritas made me do it”?
T-shirts have given up, and the “I can’t even” spirit has evolved into a fashion statement — Forever 21 stocks shirts that proclaim “nobody cares,” while Goop hawks $60 “Why am I so effing tired?” tees. We’re too exhausted from adulting to be ostentatiously clever, they seem to tell us. But the most troubling trend is the proliferation of designs for the fun, casual alcoholic, like those that say “Rosé All Day."
Today's Miss Havishams, instead of wearing faded wedding dresses among cobwebs and stopped clocks, wear Gwyneth Paltrow-approved athleisure and sip red wine while plotting a slow-burn revenge. Or, if the shirts are to be believed, gulp red wine. Why are women interested in buying tops that broadcast the trials and tribulations that occur behind closed doors?
“We are in a whole new era of graphic T-shirts,” says Jason Reed, one of the founders of Sub_Urban Riot, a clothing company that sells shirts with phrases like “Stop and Smell the Rosé” and another that lists off the ill-advised diet of “Tequila Smoothies Kombucha Craft Brew Green Juice Iced Coffee.” “With the emergence of Instagram and Snapchat, T-shirts can now be used as a wearable meme. A good tee and a drink makes for an easy selfie opportunity.”
So do boozy shirts signal that society has officially accepted the fact that women are drinking more in general — almost as much as men — and are an active part of casual-drinking culture? Or are they a mild form of rebellion, a middle finger to anyone who thinks that women and alcohol shouldn’t mix?
“There's a historic (and false) presumption that women are irrational, frivolous, and flighty,” says Kim Jenkins, a visiting assistant professor of fashion history and theory at Pratt Institute and part-time lecturer at Parsons School of Design who specializes in the intersections between fashion, race, gender, psychology, and politics. “T-shirts that express a preoccupation or excitement over alcohol support an idea that ‘femininity’ and sobriety are distant relatives. We see men walk around in their favorite beer T-shirts, but there are fewer hoops to jump through when it comes to assumptions about their character.”
Character assumptions aren’t made through the shirts alone. So much of the takeaway is a product of the body itself — gender, race, age, presentation, and size influence our interpretations of a person’s capabilities, preferences, and socio-economic class whether we want them to or not. We live in a society tightly controlled and manipulated through the propagation of stereotypes, and wearing a shirt that advertises alcohol in some capacity demonstrates a certain awareness that your body doesn’t match society’s go-to stock photos of someone with a problem.
A slim white women with smear-free makeup and just-the-right-size quad muscle-accentuating Lululemon yoga pants is the target demographic for a shirt that says something akin to “Burgers Fries and a Cosmo.” She’s the Equinox goddess who can post #cheatday without all of Instagram fat-shaming her — or the celebrity who’s hailed as “all of us” when she eats an entire cheesecake by herself. She’s the very image of normalcy, if normalcy were stylized and photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
“Our target customer starts with someone who drinks socially and isn’t afraid to let people know,” says Steve Nanino, president of Kid Dangerous, which sells men’s and women’s tees in national department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. “They’re usually in their mid-20s, like to party, and like to stand out from the crowd... Whether it’s watching sports going to a club or a concert, they have activities in their lives that are important to them [and] they just so happen to be drinking while doing it.”
It’s not a far leap to imagine that they are part of the same contingent that’s turned the whole drunk-brunch trend into a phenomenon so quotidian that it’s now just referred to as brunch. Drunk brunch in itself — downing mimosa after Bellini after frozen margarita before the sun begins to set — is inarguably a privilege, and, in a sense, performative. Drunk-brunch enthusiasts are consciously presenting themselves as people who cannot be accused of being alcoholics, all the while behaving kind of like one.
Plus, when it comes to protecting your personal image while boozing, there’s safety in numbers — a group of 20-somethings slinging back rum punch at 10 a.m. wearing “Sunday Funday” tees or a cavalry of bridesmaids wearing matching “Ready to Get Wed White & Boozed” tank tops are often granted a free pass to act outside of the norm. “Within the context of a specific occasion, there’s the forgiveness of irrationality,” says Jenkins.
Aside from the under-35 crowd, there’s another group of women who are target consumers for booze-themed shirts: moms. The mothers calling wine “mommy juice” and organizing mom-only drunk brunches seem to come from a similar, albeit slightly updated, world depicted in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique: (white) women who yearn for something beyond the sphere of home, but who are also exhausted by their responsibilities as parents and need a release.
“Our brand started and evolved last fall,” says Erin, a Texas-based mom who runs the Etsy shop Champagne Stitch with her friend Kim (both women declined to give their last names). Champagne Stitch sells shirts with phrases like “Cabernet All Day” and “Margaritas With My Senoritas.” “It was time for our kids to return to school, and our ‘mom squad’ started getting together monthly for mimosas instead of trekking to the neighborhood pool [with] kids in tow… It’s become apparent that these women want more to their identity, outside of kids.” It was during one of these adults-only sessions that the idea for the Champagne Stitch was born.
According to Erin, the mothers who wear these tees “want to outwardly express that while they have the usual obligations (parenting, jobs, etc.), they still like to have fun.”
Christy Lamb, the director of strategy and development at Moms-in-Film, attributes the “we need wine to get by” trope to something else entirely. “It’s [about] the systemic lack of support we give mothers,” she says. “Wine is an acceptable vice to joke about using as a way to take the edge off. I [sometimes] like to have a glass of wine at the end of the day... but it's troublesome how we laugh off the fact that mothers are overtaxed and resort to less-than-healthy means of coping.”
But not every mother can flaunt a tee with a graphic of a bottle opener and the phrase “mom’s fidget spinner”; these shirts are reserved for moms who exceed expectations of what it means to be the matriarch of a heteronormative middle- to upper-class family. They’re chaperoning their kids from soccer to the SAT tutor and helping their daughters sell Girl Scout cookies by guilting the rest of the moms in the synagogue's sisterhood committee to buy a box — because, true story, they’re all kosher.
The moms who can wear “Mama Needs Wine” shirts are not the same moms who have to worry about their children being taken away and placed in the foster-care system. All of the Desperate Housewives, Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, and Jules Cobb on Cougar Town can drink glasses of vino for comedic effect and still be likeable and attentive mothers. As Cameron Glover points out in her piece “Just Who Gets to Be a ‘Bad Mom’?” written about the 2016 comedy starring Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, and Kathryn Hahn, maintaining the audience’s sympathy even while behaving “badly” is a privilege primarily reserved for cis white women. No one would laugh if Mo’Nique’s character in Precious wore a shirt promoting alcohol, but Jules can chug wine out of a goblet with the same regularity and get off scot free. It’s part of what a 2013 Boston Globe article refers to as “wine-as-reward culture.” Drunkenness is only a prize for high-achieving mothers — for them “use is glorified,” while for those who don’t fit that mold, it’s something to be ashamed of.
Sheri Bottom, the owner of Sheribottomline and the creative force behind shirts with lines like “Daydrinker” and “Killin’ My Liver on the River,” says she’s seeing moms wearing her designs in the presence of their kids with increased regularity. “I think [moms casually drinking is] more of the norm now, [and] that is why I created these designs,” she says. “I believe the glass ceiling has been shattered.”
However, the new paradigm of conspicuous drinking is further complicated through expensive booze merch designed to conceal the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol-centric tees imply that enjoying alcohol is copacetic, yet apparently it’s also something to hide. But if you’re going to hide it, it can’t just be in a paper bag — that would make you an alcoholic. Instead, you need to drop hundreds on shoes with hidden compartments and designer bangles that hold just enough for a midday slurp. Again, wealth becomes the get-out-of-jail-free card (literally) for moms who indulge.
Even within the categories of moms and 20-somethings, there are further limitations for who’s “allowed” to sport a boyfriend-fit “Where There’s a Will There’s a Rosé” tee. Along with body type, projected class, and context, there’s a racial element as well. If the wearer weren’t slim, if she weren’t white, if she weren’t wearing a strappy sports bra that looks more like a cat’s cradle than a piece of underwear or living in a good school district, the reception would be a whole lot uglier.
“A black body boldly wearing a shirt that promotes alcohol consumption would be subject to respectability politics — this precarious process of reconciling one's self-presentation in order to contest the stereotypes presumed about them,” explains Jenkins, listing laziness, slovenliness, and a lack of sophistication or intellect as examples of ugly presumptions. “Marginalized cultures have a great deal at stake when it comes to self-presentation. At the heart of the matter, there is physical, emotional, and intellectual labor expended by raced, classed, and other marginalized wearers of clothing in order to appear acceptable and non-threatening. Ultimately, this performative labor efficiently keeps a hierarchal power structure intact, reinforcing boundaries and maintaining privilege.”
Still, that doesn’t stop everyone from keeping their affinity for alcohol on the down low — nor should it. Shakira, a self described “full-bodied” NYC-based nonprofit director, is not concerned about what others might think, though she purposefully only wears her “I Run for Wine” shirt to yoga or the gym. “The fact that I am even in workout gear and actually in a yoga studio or in a gym when you see me [in the shirt] is already upending stereotypes about black women,” she says. “The popularity of organizations like Black Girls Run is because there is this narrative that black women don't run, don't swim or work out.”
Monique Judge, a staff writer for The Root whose profile picture features her wearing a shirt that says “Chubby and Harder to Kidnap,” has a similar stance on her graphic tee collection, saying that she wears them regardless of what people think.
“One of my favorite shirts says ‘I live on Caffeine, Afro and Cuss Words,’ and it has a picture of a black woman with a big afro on it,” she says. “People love that shirt and always compliment me on it. I guess it's easy to like because the representation on the shirt is of a black woman. It's sassy, and people relate that to black women anyway, so it's non-threatening.
“Shirts with liquor slogans are my favorite, and I have plenty of those as well... I know there is a stigma attached to black women wearing anything that shows how liberated they are in their personhood. We're supposed to be quiet, stay in our place and not be too proud.”
But Judge has a message for those who’d rather her be neither seen or heard.
“Fuck staying humble; I'll wear what I want.”
And cheers to that.