Ben Affleck is, among other things, a masterful T-shirt storyteller. The man has spent years baring his interests on his chest, commemorating the myriad objects of his appreciation (e.g. Dunkin’ Donuts, the Sox, hardcore, Shaolin kung fu, the city of Detroit, the extended Harry Potter universe) by way of his chosen medium: the graphic tee.

It was only a matter of time before Affleck’s ever-expanding T-shirt collection included what some consider to be the most canonically important piece of merchandise from the last 30-plus years: the Nirvana smiley face tee, which the actor incorporated into his otherwise standard uniform (a black Carhartt jacket, plaid shirt, slim-fit jeans, expensive sneakers) on a New York City outing this past weekend.

The Nirvana smiley face symbol—that simple, instantly legible sketch of a woozy-looking dude with a lolling tongue and X’s for eyes, usually rendered in yellow and black—dates back to the 1991 promotional cycle for the band’s landmark sophomore album Nevermind. But thanks mostly to licensing—the band’s company, Nirvana LLC, copyrighted the X-eyed smiley face in 1993—the logo has become beloved by Generation Z, who can easily purchase licensed band merch via online fast-fashion retailers or, if they’re feeling retro, at the mall. Some Zoomers have discovered Nirvana’s music, but many more of them have discovered Nirvana’s merch.

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Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in New York City on March 30.

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(The image’s ubiquity has also opened it up to dispute: Nirvana recently sued the Marc Jacobs brand for parodying the design on a T-shirt under its Gen-Z-centric sub-brand Heaven, while a former Geffen Records designer filed another suit requesting credit for the illustration, which the band’s lawyers maintain was drawn by late frontman Kurt Cobain.)

Nowadays, Nirvana band tees come in pink and tie-dye, and are worn by all sorts of people, from young, peppy-seeming teenagers who gleefully refuse to name three songs to an Oscar-winning filmmaker who once, when asked to name his favorite musician, said “there’s too many to list. I would be afraid to say.”

When costume designer Jordy Scheinberg was on set for Netflix’s Adam Sandler family vehicle You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, she observed that most of the film’s young cast members owned the same smiley-faced Nirvana sweatshirt from Urban Outfitters.

“We would wrap [and] all the kids would put on that sweatshirt and pajama pants,” Scheinberg recalled. “I asked all of them, ‘Do you listen to Nirvana?’ … Not that I need them to, but it doesn’t even matter. The band does not matter. For me, or I think older generations, if I’m wearing this band shirt, I’m showing the world this is part of my personality and what I love. But for teens [nowadays], it’s just, ‘Oh, it’s a band and a band shirt is cool.’”

It’s hard to say if Ben Affleck was listening to Nirvana in 1991; that year, he acted in a made-for-TV movie based on a Danielle Steel novel called Daddy. But nowadays the 51-year-old actor is a father/stepfather to five Gen-Z children, who may well have Nirvana merch of their own. Perhaps the actor chuckled to himself, as he slipped a plaid button-down over his new-looking Nirvana tee. He’d lived through grunge. It’s nice to have your own style from your own era.



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