Examining the Shirt Culture of Amsterdam

. June 5, 2018.
Dr. Matt Donahue at one of the many different souvenir t-shirt shops in Amsterdam, during the filming of the “Amsterdam T-Shirt Project.”
Dr. Matt Donahue at one of the many different souvenir t-shirt shops in Amsterdam, during the filming of the “Amsterdam T-Shirt Project.”

Dr. Matt Donahue estimates that he has 200 different t-shirts in his personal collection; Seeing the collection, that number seems low.
Showing off his gaggle of shirts to start his new short documentary, “The Amsterdam T-Shirt Project,” Donahue— BGSU pop culture lecturer and self-described “T-Shirtologist”— reveals an endless variety of garments that fill shelves and drawers around his home — pieces that represent almost any subject imaginable.
“The t-shirt is such a big part of popular culture— popular culture being ‘anything and everything in our daily lives’— and most people, from little babies to older people, own at least one t-shirt,” Donahue said in an interview, adding “As an artist myself, who is inspired by the ‘pop art’ movement, where artists put popular culture imagery on canvas, the screen printed t-shirt is very similar, and for me, just as inspiring. The t-shirt is like a removable tattoo. You can express yourself with the t-shirt you are wearing.”

T-shirt capital

Over the years, Donahue’s work in music has allowed him to visit numerous cities around the world, always keeping an eye out for new shirts to add to his burgeoning collection. Donahue became convinced that one city embodies the spirit of t-shirt culture. “Through my travels, I have visited Amsterdam over the years, and being into t-shirts, pop art and popular culture, I noticed how the souvenir t-shirt in the city of Amsterdam was much more prevalent than in other cities that I visited around the world,” he said.
His fascination with the sheer number and variety of designs celebrating Amsterdam led to the creation of “The Amsterdam T-Shirt Project.” The short documentary, available on YouTube, follows Donahue around the famous city, visiting popular t-shirt manufacturers and explaining why the shirts are such a big part of the city’s identity
“Two years ago, I did photographic documentation of souvenir t-shirts in the city of Amsterdam. Upon my return, I discussed doing this project with my film/video collaborator and film advocate Josh Lightle, also from the Toledo area,” Donahue said. “We both felt that it was a unique story that would be compelling in terms of the upward trend of travel documentaries and TV shows that are so popular right now. We were looking to learn why Amsterdam had such a dynamic souvenir t-shirt culture and to spotlight some of the people behind this unique cultural phenomenon.”

Pursue your dreams

The 22-minute film covers Donahue’s visits to several different vendors and manufacturers to sample dozens of different designs, giving viewers a good sense of the variety on display throughout the city. The process of putting the short together took about a year, Donahue said.
“In terms of the filming process, my collaborator Josh Lightle and I spent a week in Amsterdam in May 2017, documenting and filming as much as we could about Amsterdam’s souvenir t-shirt culture, from interviewing souvenir t-shirt shop owners, to documenting t-shirt stalls in open air markets such as Amsterdam’s world famous Albert Cyup Market, to interviewing pop artists in Holland making artistic designs on t-shirts and also shooting b-roll footage in the city,” he said.
The film presents no solid conclusions or easy answers as to why the city has embraced t-shirt culture. But then, an easy answer was never Donahue’s goal when he started the project.
“At the end of the day the project is yet another of my ‘art for art’s sake’ type of projects and the moral of the story is to pursue your dreams and interests.”

“The Amsterdam T-Shirt Project” can be viewed at: