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U of Cers mock stereotypes, assert pride with T-shirts

University of Chicago students are rarely accused of being style innovators. Glamour usually takes a back seat to survival during the cold winter months—witness the shapeless, floor-length down coats that many students sport while dashing from the library to class—and academic concerns leave little room for vogue frivolities. The U of C, however, has always been at the vanguard of one trend in apparel: the self-deprecating, sardonic T-shirt. The newest and, according to some, most lewd line of T-shirts reads, “The University of Chicago: Where the only thing that goes down on you is your GPA.”

The pioneer T-shirts have historically poked fun at the University’s stuffy reputation and infernal intellectual environment. Shirts that described the school as the place “Where fun comes to die” allowed their wearers to make a variety of statements about their alma mater. The Classics concentrator who scans Virgil on a Friday night could wear the T-shirt with a rueful, even cheerful self-awareness. The hard-partying frat boys could wear it while pounding a six-pack and defy the stereotype through boozy debauchery. Shirts with a slightly haughtier academic tone proclaim the University as an academic boot camp, calling it “The level of hell Dante forgot.” Even the weather was ridiculed; the kid sitting next to you in your calc tutorial might, after peeling away several layers of wool in an overheated room in Gates-Blake, strip down to a cotton tee with the school’s emblem on it that read, “Hell does freeze over.”

The focus on coldness, hell, and the absence of fun recently shifted to a more universal preoccupation: sex, or the lack thereof. In 2001, Bishop House hatched a fundraising scheme that involved the sale of T-shirts in the Reynolds Club listing various concentrations and the corresponding pick-up lines students in that field might use. For instance, a physics major might woo his beloved with the wolfish request, “Why don’t you come back to my room and I’ll teach you about friction!”

The sexually-charged material then took an aggressive turn with the sale of shirts whose emblazoned words attacked the student body’s appearance and assertiveness. In the spring of 2002, shirts that claimed that at the University the “Squirrels are cuter than the girls.” Less callous but also less poetic was a sister shirt, “Where the squirrels are more aggressive than the guys.” Students took the insults in stride, with many an attractive, mini-skirted girl donning a “Cuter than” shirt cut up to reveal her nubile figure to its maximum potential.

The battle of the sexes continued in trenches of cotton and acrylic paint in 2003 and 2004. Flint House’s new shirts sassed both feminists and the Fifth Commandment with the taunt, “The University of Chicago: If it were easy it would be…your mom.” The tees were wildly popular, paving the way for the tops that bemoan the absence of oral sex on campus, unabashedly announcing that at the University, “the only thing that goes down on you is your GPA.” Student Government proudly advertises these shirts. They are among the first things that greet prospective students and their parents in the Reynolds Club.

While such a sentiment may seem the natural development of the T-shirt trailblazers who first opened up floodgates of ironic school pride years ago, some feel the newest joke goes too far. One College third-year who wished to remain anonymous cringed and described the shirts as “kind of graphic.” Brian Hinkle, a second-year in the College, said, “I haven’t bought one of the ‘only thing that goes down’ T-shirts because I don’t think they reflect the wry sense of humor U of C is known for, so much as a cynical and over-sexualized sense of humor. That’s not to say innuendo shouldn’t be on the shirts, but you should have to think about it!” Hinkle also claims to have chosen a U of C education based on the “twisted and fun sense of humor the student body has here,” evinced by the self-mocking T-shirts. Such responses demonstrate that a sense of decorum, modesty, and even respect for the opposite sex exists even at the University that turned the self-deprecating T-shirt into an icon.

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