Science Says There's a Reason You Wear Ironic T-Shirts

It's actually a unique way of signaling status.

ironic t-shirt hipster

Ironic t-shirts, which are often emblazoned with something or someone that the wearer actually hates, are not a new trend. But they've become so ubiquitous in hipster culture that many people believe they are becoming somewhat played-out.

Now, a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research has delved into some of the fascinating psychological reasons that this has become such a growing fashion staple among today's young adults.

Through a series of four experiments, Caleb Warren, assistant professor of marketing in the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, and Gina Mohr, associate professor of marketing at Colorado State University, determined that people wear ironic T-shirts in order to attract like-minded individuals and exclude mainstream culture. For example, if a heavy metal fan wears a Justin Bieber T-shirt and meets someone who realizes he is wearing it ironically, this provides an easy way to recognize that they see eye to eye. If, however, someone gets excited and assumes they are a fellow Belieber, it provides ample evidence to move on.

The other reason, based on the study, is that the t-shirt serves as an odd way of signaling status.

The researchers use the example of Bruno Mars, whose net worth is $110 million, eating at a Waffle House as a way of distinguishing himself from middle-class consumers. (One can use the long history of celebrities eating fast food after awards shows as an example, as well.) On the surface, it seems to be a humble way of indicating to other people that, despite their high status, they are still one with the "common folk." But it often comes off as a transparent attempt to seem "normal," and therefore somewhat cringeworthy.

One can compare this instead to the recently departed Anthony Bourdain, who was beloved in part because of his genuine appreciation of street food and people of various cultures. In a video that went viral after his death, Bourdain described Waffle House, without a tinge of satire, as "an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation, is welcomed."

The third reason people wear ironic t-shirts, according to the study, is that it's also an odd form of cultural appropriation.

"Throughout history, consumers have re-appropriated products to make a statement," Warren said. "For example, trucker hats were at one time low-status products and originally came into fashion through rural workers. They've since been revalued by young urban consumers."

But if you're getting older, we'd urge to steer clear of ironic tees. After all, they're one of the 40 Things No One Over 40 Should Ever Buy.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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