The school shirts phenomenon: Sense of identity or just textile waste?
Youths share what buying and owning school shirts means to them.
While it is common to see school students wear their class or school related t-shirts out in public, you might sometimes spot these shirts worn by someone well beyond their schooling days.
Although its foremost purpose is for school activities, for many, school shirts have been repurposed into casual wear or even something to sleep in.
But for some others, beyond practicality, these school shirts hold more meaning and purpose – including a display of community and even a potential business inspiration.
Fostering a sense of community
National University of Singapore (NUS) undergraduate Yew Jia Yin, 21, amassed 10 school shirts in just two years. These shirts include those from her faculty, residential college, school games jerseys, orientation shirts as well as house shirts.
House shirts, in particular, appeal to her the most.
“I usually buy them because it differentiates my house from others and it’s nice to share something in common with the rest of my house,” the Communications undergraduate shared. “It gives me a sense of belonging.”
Apart from wanting matching shirts with her house friends, buying these shirts is also a way to show support to her friend Neo Lisuen, 21, who designs the shirts for her house. Currently, Jia Yin owns three variations of them.
A stepping stone for something bigger
Sometimes, support from student-created school shirts can be so overwhelming that it motivates students to take their creations one step further. This is the case for Mechanical Engineering undergraduate Seana Teo, 21.
Last year, she designed the official event shirt for the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) B-Boy jam. As it was her first time designing a shirt, she was pleasantly surprised by the support from her friends and the public.
Friends who had missed the event asked her if they could still buy the shirt. Long after the conclusion of the event, she would still spot dancers wearing the shirt to dance events or practice sessions in public areas.
Apart from being a designer of such shirts, Seana is also quite the collector.
When deciding what shirts to buy, Seana often considers aesthetics and comfort, leaning towards intricate and interesting designs as well as 100 per cent cotton shirts. She said cotton helps her beat the Singapore weather and that it makes the designs look cleaner as compared to materials like polyester mix.
Hence, the successful sales coupled with her good understanding of shirts pushed her to launch @stickonfire – a business selling self-made stickers, prints and shirts. “Seeing people’s reactions to the event shirt, I gained a lot of confidence to pursue designing shirts, and to trust that my designs could win people’s hearts,” Seana said.
Functional shirts suited for many occasions
One shirt that has been lauded for its functionality and versatility is the Halls of NUS Shirt, better known as the HONUS shirt. NUS Nursing undergraduate Denise Chua owns four different designs of the shirt and wears them at least twice a week.
Its dri-fit material and simple logo makes it a multi-purpose and comfortable shirt. As a resident in Kent Ridge Hall who is often in NUS, Denise said: “I won’t be viewed as underdressed if I just wear the shirt out to eat or for class.”
Support that extends after graduation
But school shirts are not only worn within campus nor during schooling times. Their purpose spans beyond schooling years.
As a result, alumnus are also proud owners and wearers of school shirts that are past their prime. Lim Zhi Yu, 26, is one such individual.
Since her graduation from NTU in 2020, Zhi Yu, who works in a Medical Instrument Company, owns approximately 20 university shirts. A bulk of her shirts come from her participation in Inter-Hall Games, representing Hall 8, and being an active member in her hall’s dance club, Srethgie.
In fact, hall dance shirts are the only ones she continues to buy since graduating. Apart from the attractive designs, she believes buying the shirts is her way of giving back to the community that has taken care of her all those years.
Although a relatively small amount, these proceeds contribute towards her club’s funds that cover things from costumes for performances to welfare for the dancers. This is her way of showing support as an alumni, especially since she is a working adult who can better afford to make such purchases.
Zhi Yu said: “Dance shirts remind me of the bittersweet moments where (the dancers from my hall and I) struggled to stay awake at wee hours during dance practices and the magical moments we felt at the end of every stage performance.”
As a sentimental person, she added: “Owning these shirts holds a very special value to me now since I’ve graduated and can’t go back to that vibrant hall life.”
The future of school shirts
While buying and selling school shirts comes from a harmless place of igniting community spirit, unintentional consequences can arise. One such issue is textile waste.
In National Environment Agency’s 2022 Waste and Recycling Statistics, they found that textile had the lowest recycling rate of two per cent among the other waste categories, like food and glass.
Aside from the increasing lack of space in their closets, the huge quantity of school shirts purchased by students also points to this issue of wastage.
For Denise, she believes that such textile waste and the issue of clutter can have a detrimental impact on the environment. She said: “Most people stop wearing a school shirt after they graduate because they are no longer directly associated with the school or just don’t really have a place to wear them anymore.”
She also found it difficult to sell these school shirts on second-hand markets since people tend not to buy school shirts that aren’t associated with themselves.
Despite this, alumni Zhi Yu sees herself buying shirts for many years to come to support her hall. However, to mitigate the potential issue of wastage, she occasionally donates some of her older and lesser-worn school shirts to charity.
Others have sought creative ways to upcycle them, including cropping old shirts to have a trendier fit or repurposing them into purses and bags.
Perhaps, student committees in charge of creating school merchandise can consider steering towards timeless designs not bound by year or event, prolonging the lifespan of these shirts.
As society inches closer towards a pre-COVID-19 sense of normalcy, there is a return of school activities and with it, school shirts too.
Sometimes, prevention is better than cure. The next time you’re thinking of buying a shirt, take a moment to consider how much this shirt means to you and if you could just do without it.