Why Aren't Licensed Anime T-Shirts Nicer?
by Justin Sevakis,
There are a ton of anime that I would love to buy T-shirts and other clothing for. I'm also aware that there's an absolute TON of unlicensed T-shirt websites out there, and I'd prefer to buy the official ones that support the creators and the industry. But I'm looking around and everything seems kind of... poorly designed. Like, everything's plain, square-cut Hanes Beefy-T's with no shape, with a giant, colorful graphic plastered front and center. Nothing's fitted, nothing's using nicer fabric like American Apparel, and nothing has anything subtle at all. I'm not in college anymore, I can't wear stuff like this! With my body shape, I'd look like I'm wearing a tarp. Why can't the anime companies make nicer shirts? I would buy SO MUCH STUFF if they just looked a little nicer.
I feel you on this one. I work from home, so it really doesn't matter what I wear. Nonetheless, I am a grown man pushing 40, and I do like looking like a well-dressed professional. Most of my friends work at places where it's just fine to wear a T-shirt to the office, but even in casual office environments, you still have to look professional. People still judge you on your fashion choices and how well you present yourself. So while most companies would be just fine with their employees wearing, say, match a nicely fitting plain color T-shirt with a pair of khakis (and, in fact, many bosses dress that way)... anime T-shirts are often perceived as straight-up "unprofessional". (Let's face it, if we're talking licensed apparel, we're pretty much talking exclusively about T-shirts and hoodies.)
On one level, it's kind of a shame. When I was in college I could wear pretty much whatever I wanted and wouldn't think twice about it. But on another level, wearing a graphic T can feel like plastering yourself with a billboard. Most of them don't have any real design sense put into them as clothes. Sure, the graphic itself might've been meticulously designed, but at the end of the day, if it's just going to be a giant colorful graphic plastered all over the front of a shirt, it feels a little bit conspicuous. There is so much more you can do with a shirt, but when it comes to licensed anime apparel, it feels like nobody tries very hard. Comparing what's available for popular anime series to the breadth and depth of what's available for, say, Harry Potter or Pixar movies, from a design perspective, they usually don't look as nice. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of Harry Potter and Pixar shirt nightmares out there, but it's not particularly hard to find officially-licensed stuff that's also tasteful and well-designed among all the key art beefy Ts.
Why is this? Well, part of it may be that licensors don't want to push very hard to get Japan to approve esoteric design choices. Another reason is that most Western anime companies aren't yet at the point where they're hiring dedicated clothing designers - many of them simply have the shirts "designed" by the same people handling their DVD covers. Which isn't to say those artists COULDN'T design a nice shirt, but chances are they're not being asked to come up with original designs, and are instead simply using basic templates and their folder full of ready key art to design the shirt itself. And that's what they're being paid to do, because that's what's been approved by Japan.
Adult fashion is often more about subtle hints and knowing winks than big, over-the-top artwork all over everything. They don't call attention to themselves, don't invite judgement of strangers, and can pass relatively unnoticed, but at the same time, can also act as a secret handshake to other nerds. I'd love to have a polo shirt or a nicer, plain T that has a small UA Academy emblem off to the side. Or a jacket that says "100 Push-ups, 100 Sit-ups, 100 Squats, 10K Run" in small text along the trim. But no, literally everything I can find is just a giant piece of key art front-and-center. I can have a few of those in my T-shirt drawer, but I can't really wear them out to dinner. It feels like I'm wearing a box of Lucky Charms.
I don't know anything about you, but in my case I can sort of understand why I can't find anything. The big, popular anime franchises are aimed squarely at teens and young adults, and most young adults are just fine with wearing colorful graphic T's. I belong to a group that is older, and many of us don't fit that mold.
The bootleg "fan-made" T-shirt emporiums online (which I shall not name) do have some better diversity of designs, unfortunately. I definitely don't like or endorse those sites, but the disparity is enough that it's really tempting. Some of the designs are generic and subtle enough that, to be honest, I'm not even sure I have a moral problem with them anymore. (One sold a T-shirt that was the barest hint of a My Hero Academia reference: It simply said "Tシャツ" in a very plain font. I would absolutely wear that.) The fact that these sites are so prevalent and successful seems to prove that there's a problem here, that a market is not being met.
There is some good stuff out there. Box Lunch, which is Hot Topic's offshoot that's aimed at an older demographic, occasionally has some really nice licensed anime merchandise. Their stuff is a little pricey and goes out of print quickly, but I've seen a few pieces there that have some real nice style to them. They have a gorgeous women's tank featuring a subtle Luna from Sailor Moon, and a handful of T-shirts that aren't too over-the-top. Last year they had a really nice knitted Spirited Away cardigan, and some great shirts featuring Ein from Cowboy Bebop. Maybe one day, in the distant future, we'll start getting something like what they get in Japan; just look at this recent collaboration between JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders and Tokyo-based fashion house glamb:
The possibilities are endless. Maybe one day some enterprising person will take it upon themselves to bring this sort of thing to us, the boring grown-ups who have to stay in our boring lane for boring professional reasons but still want to express our fandom with a little fashion.
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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