Bruce Vilanch: No-Iron Irony
by Bobby McGuire
Thursday Oct 2, 2014
A former child model for plus-size clothier Lane Bryant’s “charming chub” division, gay comedy writer Bruce Vilanch is perhaps the preeminent expert on one of the quickest-growing fashion trends. A fixture in the entertainment industry since the 1970s, America got its first real look at Vilanch with the 1998 reboot of the popular game show “The Hollywood Squares,” where the six-time Emmy Award-winning writer nightly donned his signature look: the graphic T-shirt.
An evolution of the “union suit,” the T-shirt can trace its humble beginnings back to the late 19th century, when, as though a reverse metaphor for the recently ended Civil War, the top of the one-piece undergarment seceded from the bottom, leaving a comfortable and versatile buttonless shirt. Since then, the tee has found itself move front and center, from an underlayer to athletic wear to high fashion. A machine-washable black cotton T-shirt with gothic print from eminent French haute couture design house Givenchy retails at Saks Fifth Avenue for a mere $635.
EDGE caught up with this unlikely style maven to get his expert insight and advice on this big-dollar fashion trend.
EDGE: When did T-shirts become your go-to item for everything from daytime to evening wear?
Bruce Vilanch: Since I moved to California in 1975 and I discovered you can go just about anywhere wearing a T-shirt — even a funeral. I have about 3,000. About a thousand are in the house, and about 2,000 are in a lovely storage facility in Van Nuys. I call it the “Home for Aged T-Shirts.” Some I just can’t get rid of — they have moth-eaten marks, they’ve shrunk like all T-shirts, but I just can’t part with them. Then there are others.
EDGE: Have you been approached by designers to wear their T-shirts?
Bruce Vilanch: Some T-shirt designers wanted me to wear their shirts because I became famous. But I never did that because you’d have to plug them. When I was on ‘Hollywood Squares,’ I had a lot of people sending me T-shirts that they wanted me to wear, and they were completely inappropriate. Someone sent me a shirt that said “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.'” I think they must have thought we were on HBO 12 or something. Then I had a lot of plumbers who must have bought something from the same T-shirt company, sending me shirts that had the name of their company on them with the slogan “We’re #1 with #2.” I got dozens of those from all across the country with notes saying: “This would look good on your show!” The station was antsy about plugging something from people who hadn’t paid. One representative T-shirt from that bunch went straight to Van Nuys.
EDGE: What do you consider the “classic” T-shirt?
Bruce Vilanch: My favorite classic T-shirt is white with black letters that say “Laundry Day,” or an existential meta T-shirt that’s white with black letters that say “The Latest Must-Have T-Shirt.”
EDGE: When styling yourself, do you choose a shirt by color or slogan?
Bruce Vilanch: Both. If by color, black always looks better than fire-engine red. Sometimes you have to wear a jacket or a blazer. Then I have to select a T-shirt with a print that can be seen in the middle of the shirt, because you don’t want to kill the joke. It’s strategic layering.
EDGE: Can you name a time where the T-shirt matched the occasion perfectly?
Bruce Vilanch: The Academy Awards one year, when I wore a T-shirt that said “I Fired My Stylist.” Because everyone there had one, you know, and the place was lousy with stylists checking out their clients. It was a warning to those who hadn’t done well.
EDGE: Can you name a time when the T-shirt choice was a fashion faux pas?
Bruce Vilanch: We had a lot of trouble on ‘Hollywood Squares’ with logos and advertising brands that didn’t pay for it. And I had this fabulous T-shirt with the Fed Ex logo that read “FedSex” with their slogan at the time: “When you absolutely have to have it overnight.” And I wore it and the lawyers went crazy because they said FedEx would go ballistic, and that they were very litigious. Even though it was parody, which is covered, it would be a prolonged legal dispute. Apparently, they don’t like anybody messing with their logo. We ended up pixilating the slogan, which at the time very expensive and ended up costing the show a lot of money.
EDGE: Of your collection, which T-shirt would you wear to the following events:
A White House State Dinner.
Bruce Vilanch: “Hail to the Chef”
EDGE: Opening Night at the Metropolitan Opera.
Bruce Vilanch: “I Am the Fat Lady”
EDGE: When visiting an old pal at the Betty Ford Clinic.
Bruce Vilanch: “Rehab is for Quitters”
EDGE: To a parole hearing.
Bruce Vilanch: An homage to the musical Chicago: “Not Guilty”
EDGE: Group therapy.
Bruce Vilanch: “I’m with Stupid,” with the finger pointing next to me.
EDGE: A bris.
Bruce Vilanch: “Don’t Take Too Much Off the Top”
EDGE: Do you have any advice to fashionistas who are late to the party with the graphic T-shirt trend?
Bruce Vilanch: The first time out, wear something that says “My Other T-Shirt is at Your Mom’s House.”