The Genre of the Shirt

I’ll be going to town meeting tonight, a hundred of my neighbors gathered together to deliberate our community’s business, and I’ll guarantee you that there will not be two identical shirts among those hundred (unless members of the volunteer fire company show up in uniform).

Go to a clothing store and ask for a shirt. You’ll be faced with dozens of questions that try to move you from generic to specific. Do you want a dress shirt or a work shirt or a sport shirt? Long sleeves or short? Pullover or button front? Solid or pattern? Collar? Size? I’m betting, at an order of magnitude, that there have been a hundred million identifiably different shirts made in world history, each iteration then made by the dozens or thousands or millions all on its own.

And yet we share a common understanding of the word shirt. It’s a garment that covers your torso and shoulders, generally symmetrical left to right, with a place for your arms to stick out. It’s not pants. It’s not a onesie. It’s not a dress. The shirt is the cultural norm that accommodates nearly infinite individual expression. The shirt is the genre.

Moving outside the genre is a risk that most consumers won’t take. The two-piece women’s swimsuit took almost twenty years to become common, forty years to become ubiquitous. And it’ll be quite a while before we see a more casual version of Billy Porter’s Academy Awards clothes when we go out to dinner locally, even though it’s just two genres put together.

Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

A bookstore is a series of cultural expressions. Some of its genres have been around for hundreds of years, like romance and horror and mystery and cookbooks. Some have come within the last hundred or so years, like science fiction and popular business books. And some are even more recent than that, like graphic novels and literary YA. Like clothing genres, literary genres are simultaneously freeing and restricting, allowing vast individual expression within a knowable cultural frame.

All genres, whether clothing types or academic disciplines or types of cars, evolve slowly, and then one breakout period makes them broadly recognizable. The “crossover SUV” goes back to the Jeep Wagoneer of the ’40s, but the RAV4 and the Murano made them the most popular cars in America. The bikini had been around for fifteen years before it was made acceptable by Ursula Andress in Dr. No, by Annette Funicello’s beach movies, and by Goldie Hawn in Laugh In. And although we’d had comic books for decades, it took Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman to make the graphic novel a respectable category.

Creating a new genre needs pioneers, who will be mostly unknown. Later, it needs refinement by the polished pros who reveal its possibilities. And then, it will have always existed, will seem inevitable, will be its own cultural frame that enables infinite expression.