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I Put My Cat On A T-Shirt That References The Movie ‘Hackers’ And You Can’t Stop Me

Split image: My cat on a t-shirt; next to the same shirt in the 1995 film Hackers (with a different cat)
Left: Dan McQuade/Defector; Right: Excerpted still from the film Hackers

Here’s a link to Defector’s new shirt, if you don‘t want to read me ramble on about it.

I love New York City. I know I’m all rah rah about Philadelphia, but I desperately wanted to move to New York after college. When I was 21 I thought it was a place where Important Journalism happened, but I couldn't find a job doing even Portant Journalism—so I stayed in Philly. I’m happy life worked out this way. All told, this is a top-10 parallel universe for Dan McQuade. 

But New York is still a place I adore from afar. And while I like to think I wanted to move to New York because it was the best place to Change The World With My Writing, in reality I just thought New York City was cool. It is cool! It's depressing, but I have to admit it: I love New York. But, also depressingly, I also have to admit that the main reason I think New York is cool is because a lot of TV and movies are filmed there.

I read recently that New York is overrun with film crews, probably because people like me get obsessed with some interchangeable detective drama for two weeks before getting tired of it and move onto another show that’s basically the same. (Admittedly sometimes these shows are set in Los Angeles, another cool city.) I also like many movies set in New York, though I have a very depressing favorite New York City movie, the one that made me fall in love with New York. It is Hackers.

It released when I was 12. Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie play teen hackers and love interests and a bunch of people are in it, including Matthew Lillard and Wendell Pierce and Fisher Stevens and even Penn Jillette. Marc Anthony reads the Hacker Manifesto. I think critics generally hated it, but I was just a kid and it worked on me. The movie’s promotional website was immediately hacked, which seemed like a publicity stunt—but, ah, the Associated Press quoted of the hackers. “We left all the original files,” said the “young man” (as the AP identified him). “All they had to do was rename one file and everything was fixed. It wasn't meant to be evil.” More like a nice young man.

I do not remember when I first saw it. We had a computer and the internet pretty early in my house. I was not a hacker; I was too much of a wimp as a kid to do anything approaching real hacking. But I did love AOL and the World Wide Web and USENET and maybe even Gopher, so I gravitated to this stupid movie about computers and outcast high schoolers who, because it was a movie, were all obviously much older than high school kids and also super hot. Even back then I knew this movie was not a classic. I knew it was not realistic. To me Hackers exists on the same level as something like A Knight’s Tale, the Heath Ledger movie that opens with fans at a joust singing “We Will Rock You.” The depiction of the activity (hacking, jousting) is intentionally unrealistic. It’s camp. It rules.

While the film did not inspire me to be much of a hacker, much of the movie did stick with me. The entire vibe of the film has stuck with me since I saw it. The film’s camp was not just for the silly representations of computers (Jillette plays a sysadmin). The electronic soundtrack feels futuristic, even today. This extended to the costuming. The characters in Hackers do not dress like hackers. In 1994, people working on the film went to a hacker con and took photos. They decided they needed something better. This makes sense to me. The man who wrote the Hacker Manifesto is a man named Loyd Blankenship. You can see how he dresses on this Wikipedia page. There is nothing wrong with it. But you can also see why the filmmakers decided to go the club-kid route instead.

“I loved the eclectic cartoon-style clothing [that] kids from both the NY and London club scenes were wearing at the time,” Roger Burton, the movie’s costume designer, tells Defector via email. “It felt very of the moment but also futuristic and totally individual… these clothes were way more interesting than the kind of drab black clothes that actual hackers seemed to prefer at that time—boring!”

Burton told Defector one designer he gravitated toward was Patricia Field, who first opened a boutique in New York in 1966. (Her House of Field line later became well-known for dressing Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw character on Sex in the City, in what New York magazine called “a brilliant mix of high and low fashion.”) Much like Sex in the City, New York is a sort of supporting character in Hackers.

Though the club-kid look is not what actual hackers actually wore, it really works for the film. I think it’s because hackers and Burton himself share a similar sensibility. I recently picked up a wonderful book by Burton, Rebel Threads: Clothing of the Bad, Beautiful & Misunderstood. In it, he showcases a collection of clothes worn by outcasts over the years; a lot of the looks could come right out of Hackers. Though they may not dress the part, these computer hackers were rebels too. Why not glam them up a bit for the movie?

Here is a 24-minute video where Burton goes through the costumes for Hackers. Feel free to take a half-hour break from this site to watch this video.

Burton is a man who, like me, loves kitsch and things like tacky t-shirts. Since the film would be set and shot in New York, he went around the city looking for inspiration. He found it in a silly kitten t-shirt in Times Square, worn by Renoly Santiago’s character The Phantom Phreak. (“The king of NYNEX,” he says; he sells disks and “hack the planet” beanies on his website.) The shirt is incredible. It features a white cat silhouetted in a pink haze, a rose and the logo of New York magazine. It isn’t any sort of official New York mag shirt, or even a bootleg; the logo is classic-looking and occasionally just used as a signifier for New York city. Diddy got a tattoo of it in 2013. The shirt is great.

The shirt in question, in the scene where Dade Murphy (Crash Override/Zero Cool) hacks the school sprinkler system in order to soak Kate Libby (Acid Burn; she’s in the back) and, I guess, the rest of the school too. The Phantom Phreak, in the cat shirt, was very excited about it.

“A lot of what the club kids were wearing both sides of the pond was inspired by vintage pop art 1960s and 70s TV fashions and kitsch tourist t-shirts,” Burton says. “So as the film was to be shot in New York we were naturally drawn to Canal Street market and Times Square tourist shops and here we found that cute little pink kitten t-shirt which seemed destined to be in the movie. I also just loved the idea that the kitten lit up like a really bad twinkling Christmas card, plus the fact that dayglo and neon clothing was very popular in clubs. So the kitten fit right in.”

Though I was not a cat person at the time, I loved this shirt as a kid, even more than Angelia Jolie wearing a New Jersey Devils jersey. It was cute and kitschy. My family did not have any pets as a kid, but I always liked cats, probably for Garfield-related reasons. As an adult I am very much a cat person, and have a cat myself. Detective John Munch has occasionally been used on to illustrate a point I’m making. (That point is usually: “My cat is cute.”) I’m sure you know where this is going:

One of the biggest joys about this job has been running the merchandise store. Not only have I gotten to design t-shirts myself, but I’ve gotten to work with a variety of great artists who I have hired to put designs on t-shirts. It’s everything I ever wanted! One excellent artist I’ve been working with is Tara Jacoby. I gave her a number of cat photos and painstaking instructions on what I wanted, and she has drawn a brilliant shirt. It is perhaps the greatest shirt I have ever seen. I am not being hyperbolic, although I guess I am also trying to sell the shirt. But the shirt really is great. It features my cat and is a reference to Hackers, and that is enough for me. I’m going to wear it into the ground, then buy more. I tried to get Detective to do a photoshoot with it, but it didn’t really work.

No matter. You have seen what this looks like now. You can buy this shirt at the Defector Store. It comes in white, like the movie, and red, like… a red t-shirt. As with all of Defector‘s online merchandise, it is printed on a union-made in the USA t-shirt by a union coop. The shirt I have in my possession already are printed on Royal Apparel, one of my favorite t-shirt brands. Now you can wear my cat, a rose, and the Defector logo on your shirt. Buy now! Or, you know, don’t. But you can at least enjoy this drawing of my cat.

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