Celebrities flaunt chest manifesto

Want to know how the famous feel about anything? All you have to do is read the T-shirt

February 23, 2003|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

Celebrities have always been somewhat mysterious creatures.

They're beautiful people we see on magazine covers and TV screens holding hands, pushing baby strollers, ducking into stores with lattes in hand.

We feel like we know them, but what's really on their minds? Well, these days, it's easy to find out -- just check out their chests.

In recent months, we've seen musician Sheryl Crow on the red carpet, and The Lord of the Rings' Viggo Mortensen at a book signing, with "War is not the answer" scrawled on their shirts.

Some statements are more personal than political. Curious about Britney Spears' thoughts on actress Alyssa Milano dating her ex? Check out the shots of her, strolling the streets of London in a shirt bearing the words "DUMP HIM."

And when Julia Roberts grew frustrated last year with her boyfriend's contentious divorce proceedings with makeup artist Vera Steimberg, she strode out of the house in a shirt that trumpeted the dig "A Low Vera" to the waiting paparazzi.

Gone are the days when the T-shirt was a mere article of clothing. Today, it's a blank slate waiting for a celebrity's custom-made Fashion Statement du Jour, a billboard for stars to announce to the world what they really think. And it's a style trend that's gripped major and minor celebrities.

"It's the T-shirt as a press conference," said fashion observer David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, a New York trend-tracking firm. "It's the same idea that strikers have when they're carrying picket signs -- a picture of words is worth even more than 1,000 words."

The trend has been fueled in part by the media's ever-growing obsession with celebrities.

On the newsstands alone, there is Us Weekly, People and the new In Touch magazine -- a new, gossip rag that made its debut in November -- battling over who can have the splashiest celebrity pictorials and dish about the most minutiae of stars' lives.

"It makes perfect sense," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University. "This guarantees that you get whatever you want to say out not only to the legitimate people photographing you but also the people who are stealing your image. You're saying, 'If you want my image, you have to take my message, too.'"

This was the idea that models at Ralph Lauren's recent New York fashion show had. After the show, more than 10 of them donned white T-shirts inked with their own anti-war messages, and posed outside in the freezing cold for waiting photographers.

"All week, people have been focusing on what we are wearing," said model and protest organizer Angela Lindvall. "We thought we would make use of the media to say something. ... War is destruction of life."

This is hardly the first time that celebrities have used T-shirts as mouthpieces.

Through the '60s, countless stars used sloganed chests to show solidarity in the anti-war movement. And after Sept. 11, the throngs of famous people appearing at events wearing FDNY or NYPD T-shirts included Bruce Willis, Paul McCartney and Robin Williams.

The new wave of talking tees is different, however. Celebrities aren't just wearing T-shirts to show support for a cause; the new chest-scrawls often have a more personal touch.

Witness the embattled Winona Ryder on the cover of W magazine last year wearing a "Free Winona" T-shirt. Or NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, who called Talladega, Ala., fans "obnoxious" in a magazine interview last year and then tried to make light of the situation by showing up at a race in a shirt that said "Obnoxious Talladega Race Driver."

The most surprising (often love-related) ones can offer fresh insight into a star's psyche -- and all the catty, small-minded and bitter thoughts that pollute it.

"You wonder," Wolfe said, "about the psychological profile of someone who needs to do that."

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