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The Stories Behind 5 T-Shirt Brands You Wore in the '90s

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In the 1990s, there was nothing more important than being extreme and having a rude 'tude. It was a decade when people stopped being polite and started getting real, and everyone had the T-shirts to prove it. Here are the stories behind the companies that pumped out the raddest and baddest cotton tees.

1. Big Dogs

Big Dogs T-shirts are easy to spot thanks to the eponymous cartoon St. Bernard and in-your-face slogans like, “If You Can’t Fish With The Big Dogs, Stay On The Dock,” “Anger Management Classes…PISS ME OFF,” and, “How’s My Driving? Call 1-800-BITE-ME.” When the Big Dog isn't railing against bad fishermen or bad drivers, he's boasting about his drinking problem (“When I Read About The Evils of Drinking, I Gave Up Reading!”), musing on the awesomeness of sexual intercourse (“People That Say ‘It’s Better Than SEX’ Aren’t Having The Right Kind of SEX!”), or talking politics ("When Did 'For The People By The People' Become 'Screw The People?!'").

According to its website, Big Dogs Sportswear “was conceived in 1983 by friends during a weekend river-rafting expedition.” While corporate mythology should always be taken with a grain of salt—especially when it appears under a header marked “THE LEGEND”—the Big Dogs brand’s origin story goes like so: “Before the adventurous group made its way down the choppy white waters, each was presented with a pair of oversized, vividly colored shorts. Everyone loved the shorts and one enthusiastic member exclaimed, ‘Man, these puppies are BIG!’”

At its peak, there were 231 Big Dogs brick-and-mortar stores, each one full of 'tude-heavy tees, boxer shorts, and sweatshirts. The last of these stores closed in 2009, however, and in a letter to customers (complete with a “From The Desk Of The Big Dog” image), CEO Andrew Feshbach wrote, “Over the past 10 years, it became increasingly difficult to maintain a viable company due to the massive competitive pressure from huge mall retailers like The Gap or the giants like Wal-Mart.”

Big Dogs still exists online (the label itself is under The Walking Company umbrella), so you can pick up a “Big Dogs of the Caribbean” parody shirt from the comfort of your home.

2. No Fear

Launched in 1989 by twin brothers Mark and Brian Simo, No Fear quickly became one of the most popular sportswear companies in the country—and the most popular sportswear company so staunchly against being scared.

The Simo brothers were motocross racers and tree surgeons from Chicago who split their time between the Midwest and Florida. Surprised at the prevalence of Speedo-style bathing suits on Florida's beaches, the brothers (along with partner Jeff Theodosakis) decided to make an alternative: baggy surf shorts. According to the LA Times, they "sold their motocross bikes and bought sewing machines" and started Life's A Beach Surfwear out of their Chicago garage. They moved to Carlsbad, California in 1985 and teamed up with artist Mark “Boogaloo” Baagoe, who designed the company's "Bad Boy Club" logo.

Life's a Beach proved to be immensely popular, and the brothers started a new line: No Fear. "No Fear was our second company which was dubbed as dangerous sports gear," Baagoe, who designed that logo as well, recalls. "No Fear was all about dangerous sports goods: boxing, big wave riding, extreme fighting, mountain climbing, guys on skis killing big mountains, skaters, surfers hitting 100-foot waves, drag racers...that sort of stuff."

No Fear initially sponsored motocross teams, but soon branched out to other adventure sports. The brand became synonymous with the "X-treme" culture of the 1990s, and it posted hundreds of millions of dollars in profits during the middle of the decade.

While T-Shirts and logo-heavy clothing were the No Fear empire's bread and butter, they had their extreme fingers in many extreme pies—like when they lent their name to the 1995 Super Nintendo game Kyle Petty's No Fear Racing:

No Fear trademarked more than 50 slogans like "Fearless" and "So Cal," and the company was rather litigious and aggressive in defending its brand (check out this failed lawsuit against someone making "NO SPILLS, NO THRILLS" T-Shirts, and this letter to Senator Orrin Hatch supporting the Anti-Counterfeiting Act of 1995).

As the '90s gave way to the far less extreme aughts, No Fear refused to go gentle into that good night. They opened outlet stores in 2000, partnered with Pepsi in 2004 to produce energy drinks, and launched an annual music tour in 2007. The extreme ride couldn't last forever though, and No Fear, Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011.

3. B.U.M. Equipment

Let's get this out of the way first: "B.U.M." doesn't stand for anything—it's an acronym in spirit only. B.U.M. Equipment's puff-printed logo first appeared on sweatshirts in 1986. Seattle clothing designer Derek Federman created the look in his garage and soon sold the brand to Chauvin International, Ltd., an L.A. manufacturing company owned by businessman Morty Forshpan. (Federman left in 1988 after disagreements over B.U.M.'s direction.)

In a 1993 L.A. Times profile, Forshpan—who wasn't a clothing designer by trade and "acknowledges he's never picked up a sketch pad"—attributed the label's success in the early '90s to celebrities like Wayne Gretzky and Jason Priestley, who wore the simple athletic gear in public (the article is unclear about whether or not they were getting paid). "The customer can identify with these people," Forshpan told the L.A. Times reporter while showing him "a Billy Ray Cyrus concert program featuring the singer in a B.U.M. sweat shirt."

B.U.M.'s sales were estimated to be around $300 million in 1994, but its growth was not sustainable and the company began losing money. In 1995, B.U.M. was named in a lawsuit filed by 68 Thai garment workers who "toiled in alleged prison-like conditions" in El Monte, California before being freed by federal authorities.

B.U.M. Equipment filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

4. Big Johnson

For fans of penis puns and buxom cartoon women, Big Johnson T-shirts must have represented a cultural apex. The shirts, which flew off shelves at boardwalk stores across the country, featured E. Normus Johnson, a bespectacled pervert who maintained various small businesses with slogans that weren't exactly Oscar Wilde-ian in their wordplay:

-Big Johnson's Bar & Casino: Liquor Up Front, Poker in the Rear
-Big Johnson Landscaping: Call Us When It's Time to Trim a Little Bush
-Big Johnson Contractors: We Don't Stop Until You Get Drilled, Nailed and Hammered

Big Johnson is a subsidiary of Maryland Screen Printers, a company started in the late '80s by Garrett Pfeifer and his brother Craig. After the 26-year-old Pfiefer quit his job as a tax attorney, he and his brother sold bootleg T-shirts at football games to make a quick buck. Encouraged by the small venture's profitability, they decided to take it full-time.

According to Baltimore City Paper, Big Johnson didn't come into play until a local DJ named Batman "brought the two brothers a breast-happy T-shirt design that had been drawn by a...frustrated ex-history teacher named Al Via."

Via was hired full-time, and he started cranking out bawdy designs for the brothers. According to Pfeifer, Al's strength was the ability to "create a complicated scene on a T-shirt—some of them have 40 or 50 people—and make it feel organized and readable." That, and the penis puns. Via came up with the first official Big Johnson shirt in 1989 and it was an immediate hit in stores in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The brand's popularity peaked in the mid-'90s, and Inc. Magazine named Maryland Screen Printers one of America's fastest growing companies in 1993 and 1994.

All this popularity didn't come without its share of controversy. Big Johnson tees were banned at Walt Disney World Resorts because of their lewd designs. In 1995, E. Normus Johnson was caught up in a legal fight when a man was ordered to remove Big Johnson T-shirts from his store, which was located inside the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. According to the Baltimore Sun, the shirts featured "sexual innuendoes about firefighters and women...[and] prompted complaints from women who were training at the fire academy." The store's owner filed a federal lawsuit claiming his First Amendment rights were being violated, but dropped the suit when he was offered more retail space in the building (he still wasn't allowed to sell the shirts).

Big Johnson still exists, albeit in a much smaller capacity. Maryland Screen Printers' focus today is primarily on blander designs for clients like Major League Baseball. No penis puns there, although we're sure it's pretty tempting.

5. AND1

“The revolution began on the streets of Philly in 1993," an old version of the AND1 website boasted. In reality, it started as a project at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Grad student Seth Berger and a group of friends developed a brand that was all about basketball—and only basketball—and they intended to use streetball culture as a way to slip into the market.

"We want to be the number-one basketball company in the world," Berger told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996. He actually came close—at its peak in the mid-'90s, AND1 managed to become the second biggest basketball brand (in terms of market share) in the U.S.

Signing much-hyped teenager Stephon Marbury and controversial all-star Latrell Sprewell (right after he choked his coach) to wear AND1 shoes helped the company's popularity, but the brand initially made its name via T-shirts. These featured a "faceless and raceless" character known only as "The Player," who, according to AND1, was "an icon" who "made it okay to talk trash as long as you could back it up." The tees had slogans like "I saw a picture of your game on a milk carton'' and "Your game's as ugly as your girl," and each one was an attempt to crystallize AND1's streetball persona (which, it's worth reminding ourselves here, was invented by Wharton grad students).

The company branched out to video games and "AND1 Mixtape" streetball tournaments, but it lost a third of its value by 2005, when Berger ultimately sold AND1 to American Sporting Goods. The brand survives, but their T-shirts are far more subdued today, meaning you better hit ebay if you want to insult a hypothetical opponent with your clothing.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
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iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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