“Oh those Wildwood days, Wild-Wild-Wildwood days
Every day’s a holiday, and every night is a chance to buy a cheaply-made t-shirt that’s likely crude, very possibly offensive, and definitely overpriced from one of the approximately 127 t-shirt shops on the boardwalk”
—Bobby Rydell, “Wildwood Days,” if I’m remembering it correctly
Monday was Memorial Day, and many Philadelphians celebrated it the only way they know how: By driving down the shore, laying on the beach, eating greasy food, and buying a tremendously tacky t-shirt.
I, too, participated in this annual summer tradition on Monday and went down to Wildwood. That’s right: It’s now time for my third-annual Wildwood boardwalk t-shirt round up. Previous editions in 2012 and 2013 (with a late-summer update) have covered enough ground that I’ll be ignoring some of the holdovers that are sticking around — Mickey hands, diamonds, pot and booze shirts, she’s/he’s mine, etc. — and focusing on new shirts or older ones that are having a resurgence. (Unfortunately, the Sex Drugs Dubstep t-shirt has not made its comeback yet.)
So kick up your feet, put on your best neon “I <3 my crazy wife” t-shirt, and get ready to learn about some classy shirts.
Gay Pride Shirts
Twenty years ago, nearly every boardwalk t-shirt store sold this incredibly offensive one: "Silly faggot, dicks are for chicks!" It's a pun on the "Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids!" Trix slogan and, if this version is anything like the 1990s Wildwood one, sometimes featured a crude approximation of the Trix rabbit flipping the bird.
This was particularly aggressive, even for an offensive boardwalk t-shirt, and on July 24, 1994, 10 gay-rights and women's organizations rallied in Belmar to protest the shirts sold at t-shirt stores along Jersey shore boardwalks, including Wildwood. The groups urged a boycott of stores selling the shirts. So did Gov. Christine Whitman, who called the shirts "an appeal to personal bias and bigotry." General Mills sicced lawyers on the shops.
But, per a 1994 Inquirer article by Karla Haworth, the shirts were hot sellers. One Wildwood boardwalk t-shirt vendor told her they were his No. 1 seller: Six dozen a day at $9.99 a pop! That's $719.28 in sales of anti-gay t-shirts.
Twenty years later, the Trix parody shirts are gone, swept into the ocean by changing societal attitudes and possibly General Mills lawyers. And, with same-sex marriage legal in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the trend in gay pride shirts — which popped up a bit last year — is for gay-marriage pride shirts.
There aren't a ton of gay pride shirts on the boardwalk, but there's at least one on the front of many shops. I don't believe in a teleological view of history of the treatment of marginalized groups — especially when discussing t-shirts — but you could probably trace the ebb and flow of societal attitudes through Wildwood boardwalk t-shirts. Nobody steal this thesis idea in case I decide to go back to school to get my masters.
What, no Gay Marine shirts? I will have to pick up that "This is what Polish looks like" shirt for my grandmother next time I'm down the shore.
Confederate Flag Stuff
There's always been Confederate flag stuff down the shore — "We're below the Mason-Dixon Line," idiots buying a Dixie flag in New Jersey would incorrectly say — but there seems to have been a resurgence in the last few years. Confederate flag shirts are almost always on display with the term "redneck" and shirts about hunting and country life, so it's likely riding the coattails of a general resurgence in that lifestyle helped by shows like Duck Dynasty. Sorry you're being associated with racists who hate Obama, people who just like to hunt! Take it up with the t-shirt salesmen.
Offensive Shirts About Women
Let's continue this tour of offensiveness, shall we? Surely some of the appeal of "[NAME]'s GIRL" boy shorts comes from a good (or at least acceptable) place: A girl happy to tell everyone who her boyfriend is and how much they love each other. But the idea of a girl buying "MIKE'S PROPERTY" shorts — or, worse, a guy buying it for his girl — is kind of disturbing. However, I don't see Chris Christie speaking out against the Confederate flag shirts or boy shorts that treat women as the property of men anytime soon.
Also, roll your own damn blunts, you lazy kids.
Hands Down, The Most Screwed-Up Shirt of the Wildwood Boardwalk in 2014
"Angry father" t-shirts are, again, a boardwalk classic — but they're back in vogue this year, with nearly every store I passed selling variations on this dumb theme. This one, a top-10 list from a version of The Late Show in Hell, is the most disturbing. Even if you take it as trying to be jokey, look at point number 10! It's basically, "Hook up with my daughter and I'll molest you." What the hell. Why is this shirt for sale? Who buys it? Do I even want to know the answers to those questions?
And, yeah, those are Mickey Mouse hands rolling a joint being licked by the Rolling Stones logo. So many layers.
I can't believe this is the less screwed-up of the two shirts in this section.
It's not all bad. Most of this stuff is more curious than disturbing. Take, for example, the ubiquitous Marilyn Monroe shirts. Are these ever going to go away? We're now in year three of full-fledged Wildwood boardwalk Marilyn Monroe nostalgia, and it might be bigger than ever. Oddly enough, a court ruling might've precipitated this expansion: It ruled Monroe lived in New York at the time of her death; the state does not grant post-mortem publicity rights. There's nothing her estate can do! Not that Wildwood boardwalk t-shirt stores are stalwart defenders of copyright.
Monroe herself said she "belonged to the public and to the world," though it's unclear if she knew she'd be used to promote ecstasy, sleeve tattoos, and the 2014 World Cup when she said this.
Marilyn Monroe isn't the only dead person getting play on the boardwalk this summer, though the other primary case is a fictional character. Remember that Breaking Bad episode where Heisenberg got a bunch of tattoos and then made an OBEY parody shirt of himself, just to taunt Hank? That's my favorite one.
Philadelphia Sports Teams Are Depressing
Ugh. Not only is there Cowboys stuff here, but the Philadelphia sports shirts have just gotten depressing. Congratulations to Flyers owner Ed Snider: His team hasn't won a championship in so long its drought is now as pathetic as the Eagles.
Also, Philadelphia sports fans are most likely to love their crazy cats.
I Lift! Or I Pretend to With This T-Shirt!
These are the perfect shirts for a boastful teenage boy who's spent some time at the gym. In addition to the ever-popular "Suns Out, Guns Out" t-shirt, there are tons of ways to try to get people to look at your arms with the words on a t-shirt! Or you can literally say that you put lifting before any dating, if you're that into it.
Did the "Eat. Sleep. Train. Repeat." shirt come before pro wrestler Brock Lesnar's "Eat Sleep Conquer Repeat" shirt? I think this might be a chicken-and-egg thing.
A good way to learn what stupid catchphrases teenagers are using nowadays is to look at the senior week t-shirts. Turns out that "Turn Down for What?" (a Lil' Jon and DJ Snake song — a rhetorical question asking why the speaker would ever stop being turnt up, i.e., drunk and high) and "But Did You Die?" (a quote from The Hangover Part II). Also, there's an attempt to replicate the success of last year's "Like a 13oss" shirts, but a 13 looks a lot more like a B than a 14 looks like an H.
My favorite senior week shirt, though, is this one — which combined the patriotism of Memorial Day with the patriotism of knowing America is a country where you can get plastered.
God Bless America.
Celeb shirts appear to be on the wane — well, at least shirts of live celebrities — but Miley Cyrus's antics are similar enough to those of a teenager on Senior Week that she remains.
Lest you think millennials' favorite mode of communication isn't well-represented on the boardwalk, here's proof it is.
Actually, that reminds me of a photo I took Monday.
I admit sunglasses aren't that popular — I had to go to the back of a store to find them — though most stores do carry these ridiculous things. There's a reason you wouldn't wear these: Looking like a doofus with a stupid slogan on your t-shirt is one thing, but being unable to see thanks to these stupid sunglasses is another. I don't even think they offer any UV protection!
Twenty years after the founding of the shop, Supreme is now big enough for its red box logo to be parodied on Wildwood boardwalk sunglasses. Take a bow.
For completists, this is the second time a shirtless photo of me has run on this site. Collect the whole set!
And … What, What?
There has been one constant in Wildwood for my entire life: The "Watch the tram car please" shirt is sold at every store, every year, though I don't think I've ever seen anyone but grandmothers wearing them.
That stupid seagull being run over by the tram car has been a Wildwood boardwalk constant, never to change, never to … hey, what?
A cat?! This isn't Atlantic City with its boardwalk cat colonies! This is a new and unfamiliar Wildwood. I don't know what's real anymore. I … I have to go.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.