What is it about the puffy shirt?!

While we're renovating the west side of the museum, a few of visitors' favorite objects have been moved off display, including Jerry Seinfeld's "puffy shirt." In the meantime, as we work on a new exhibition on American culture, we'll periodically explore some objects and themes the project team is thinking about here on the blog. Project Assistant Ryan Lintelman considers the puffy shirt from the television show Seinfeld, one object that many of our museum visitors ask about.

In a memorable 1993 episode of the show, when Jerry meets Kramer's fashion designer girlfriend (a "low talker"), he accidentally agrees to wear a ruffled shirt on a Today Show appearance, causing him great embarrassment. So how did this comedy prop make its way to the Smithsonian and why does it still resonate, 20 years after the episode first aired?

 

"Seinfeld" was a critical favorite and a cultural phenomenon, drawing upon humor born of its characters’ urban neuroses and problems they encounter when faced with concerns of the postmodern world. The design of the puffy shirt grows out of traditions of counterculture fashion and its incongruity with the persona of Jerry Seinfeld.
"Seinfeld" was a critical favorite and a cultural phenomenon, drawing upon humor born of its characters' urban neuroses and problems they encounter when faced with concerns of the postmodern world. The design of the puffy shirt grows out of traditions of counterculture fashion and its incongruity with the persona of Jerry Seinfeld.

Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers, who works in the Division of Culture and the Arts, collected the shirt from Jerry Seinfeld and Warner Brothers in 2004. Charged with telling the story of American humor, Dwight is always searching for objects representing a comedian's contributions to history.

"The museum collected artifacts from the show Seinfeld because the show was such a defining moment in American TV comedy and American culture," said Dwight. "The show chronicles a group of unrelated New Yorkers centered more on character rather than plot-oriented humor."

But what object could the museum collect to preserve and interpret the contribution of Seinfeld, the "show about nothing," to American history?

"When we were in touch with the show's producers, we learned that little material culture endured from the show and existed for donation," said Dwight, referring to objects that historians can use to represent the specific place and time of the show. 

"The producers offered Jerry's apartment refrigerator covered with magnets. We realized that this was too ungainly an object for the museum to accommodate. We countered with the puffy shirt because it is a costume representative of the show and of its leading player."

"I remember telling Jerry Seinfeld that the essence of the show was him and his humor. Short of taking him to a taxidermist and having him conserved for the collection, the puffy shirt, of the precious little material culture that remained from the show, gave a sense of the slightly absurd brand of comedy that was featured on the show."

 

Jerry Seinfeld visited the museum in 2004 to donate the puffy shirt. Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers would have liked to collect the comedian himself!
Jerry Seinfeld visited the museum in 2004 to donate the puffy shirt. Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers accepts the donation.

In addition to the shirt, Dwight also collected a copy of the script in which the shirt makes its appearance. This is meaningful since much of the humor of the show derives from the language.

"Seinfeld contributed catchphrases to the American lexicon, such as 'yada, yada, yada' for empty talk and 'not that there’s anything wrong with that' as a form of apologia," said Dwight. "Both are deemed as Seinlanguage connoting the patois that is such a vital part of the show."

 

The puffy shirt with a copy of the episode script collected
The puffy shirt with a copy of the episode script collected

Nancy Davis, Curator in the Division of Home and Community Life, finds the shirt an interesting object in the context of male fashion and costume history.

"Unfortunately, Jerry's shirt exists in the museum only as 'Jerry's puffy shirt' without a real example of this style with which to compare it," says Nancy. "A comparatively worn man's 'poet's shirt' from the 1960s-1980s would be welcome in the collection."

Where did this look come from? "The Byronic romantic poet's shirt of the mid-20th century and the Pirates of the Caribbean lookalikes are fanciful creations based on a pastiche of the 1670's cavalier dress, cravats, and stocks worn by men in the Early Republic and the Beau Brummell Regency look," Nancy said. "Likely the Seinfeld show's designer didn't sell too many of these!"

 

Burns and Highland Mary, print by Sarony & Major, 1846. This is an example of the romantic poet's attire that partially inspired the puffy shirt.
"Burns and Highland Mary," print by Sarony & Major, 1846. This is an example of the romantic poet's attire that partially inspired the puffy shirt.

Shannon Perich is the co-leader for the upcoming exhibition and project director for the new American culture wing of the Museum.

"Not all artifacts tell the same kind of story or fit into historical narratives in the same way," Perich says. "But they do represent some small, medium, or large part of a significant trend in history. For some, the puffy shirt is a reminder of a particular moment in their lives when this innovative show was as it height. The word 'meme' wasn't in as much use as it is today, but some might think of the puffy shirt and 'yada, yada, yada' in that way—something passed from person to person that conveys cultural sentiments. Repeating the phrase or referring to the shirt was a way for individuals to connect to other viewers of the show and larger cultural ideas of the 1990s. For museum staff, collecting the puffy shirt is not only collecting for the significance of the television show but also for how the show was valued by the viewing public."

The museum's volunteer docents certainly know how the public values the puffy shirt. Ron Wallach tells us that when visitors come to the information desk, "it's not what the visitors say, it's how they say it. Three words: 'The puffy shirt!!!!'"

Jane C. Conely adds, "Twice as a visitor was requesting the puffy shirt's location, it was followed by '…not that there’s anything wrong with that,' and a smile. The quote is from a different episode but as easily identified with the show as the puffy shirt."

Manager of Visitor Programs Andrea Lowther adds that she thinks visitors are looking to connect with a something directly related to their own experiences. "Perhaps they watched the show with friends or family, and seeing the shirt in person reminds them of those times." For those seeking the puffy shirt in the museum, "our volunteers often answer the question by explaining that to help conserve our objects, especially textiles, we sometimes have to rotate items off view," Andrea says. "So it's a little chance to offer some insight into how the museum cares for its collections."

What do you think about the puffy shirt? Does it speak to your experience? Are there any other television shows that are meaningful or important to you?

While the puffy shirt is currently not on view during our renovation, there are still many television history objects on display in American Stories exhibition. Ryan Lintelman, a Project Assistant at the National Museum of American History, has also blogged about another bizarre costume. Stay tuned for new posts about our approach to collecting and exhibiting American cultural history!

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Posted at 4:46 pm EDT in From the Collections,Musings