The Shirt Off His Back

Jerry Seinfeld’s silly, frilly prop takes its place in television history

Costume designer Charmaine Simmons conceived Jerry's foppish garb to be both "uncomfortable" and "unwearable." Jeff Tinsley/National Museum of American History

Let me get something out of the way: I'm a bit of a hypocrite. For years I've disdained Trekkies, those odd souls who obsess over the adventures of Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise on "Star Trek," the folks who stick pointed Vulcan ears to the sides of their heads and attend conventions in too-tight leotards, who learn to speak Klingon and bark "Beam me up, Scottie" at each other. How can they be so slavishly devoted to what is, after all, just a television show? Hey, you with the fake phaser, get a life!

Yet I never question my own taste and intelligence as I sit, night after night, watching reruns of the sitcom "Seinfeld," moving my lips to all the choice lines of a nine-year run that turned me into a Seinfeldian as avid as any Trekkie. By now, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the plots, places and punch lines that made the show as enduring a part of classic television culture as "The Honeymooners" and "I Love Lucy." When I find myself among fellow Seinfeldians, I know I can get laughs simply by repeating certain catch phrases, or referring to key moments, mysterious to the uninitiated: "No soup for you!" "Oh, the humanity!" Bubble Boy. "How could anybody not like him?" JFK's golf clubs. Elaine's Christmas party dance. "They’re real, and they're spectacular." And perhaps the most resonant reference of all, the puffy shirt.

OK, maybe you never stoop lower than "Masterpiece Theatre" or "NOVA," never spend 30 minutes with anything less edifying than "60 Minutes." Or somehow you missed this episode—and its by now countless reruns. So you may be forgiven for asking—What puffy shirt? An explanation, complete with plot synopsis, follows shortly. But first a word about why said odd-sounding vestment is appearing in these hallowed pages. The puffy shirt, one of the most memorable props in one of the funniest half-hours of "Seinfeld," was recently donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History by the man who wore it with such memorable unenthusiasm, Jerry Seinfeld.

Here, in compressed form, is the Episode 66 plotline, written by the show's co-creator, Larry David, and airing the first time a dozen years ago: Seinfeld's weird neighbor Kramer has a new girlfriend, described by Jerry and his friend Elaine as a "low talker"—only Kramer can actually hear what she's saying. At a restaurant, Kramer announces that the new girlfriend, a fledgling clothing designer, has just created a puffy shirt "like the pirates used to wear." Later, Elaine mentions that Jerry is going to be on the "Today Show" to promote a benefit she's chairing for the Goodwill charity. Kramer leaves the table for a few minutes, and Jerry, unable to hear what Kramer's new girlfriend is saying, just nods and says yes to everything she says to him. The next day, Kramer tells a stunned Seinfeld that he agreed to wear the puffy shirt for his "Today Show" interview with Bryant Gumbel. Kramer reassures him that he'll look like a pirate. "But I don’t want to be a pirate," Jerry whines. Kramer tells him that, in anticipation of the promised plug, stores all over New York City have agreed to stock the shirts. Thus the next morning Jerry arrives on the set wearing the puffy shirt. Barely suppressing his laughter, Gumbel can't talk about anything but the shirt, what a fascinating look it is, how being a "pirate comedian" could be a whole new thing in Seinfeld's career. Jerry is miserable and finally blurts out that it's not his shirt and that he thinks it's "the stupidest shirt I've ever seen." In a classic "Seinfeld" domino effect, the shirt's designer, lurking in the dressing room, flies into a rage, Jerry's friend George, arriving late, laughs at the shirt, gets a shove from the girlfriend and accidentally picks up a hot iron that Kramer had used to press the shirt. George thus ruins his new career as a hand model (don't ask), Kramer's new girlfriend loses her store contracts, the hapless Kramer breaks up with her because he can't be with someone whose life is in disarray, Jerry's benefit performance runs aground on a reef of heckled pirate jokes, Elaine is kicked off the benefit committee and hundreds of unsold puffy shirts are given Goodwill. The next day, on the street, Jerry meets two homeless men, each wearing a puffy shirt. "Spare a little change for an old buccaneer?" one of them asks. At which moment Jerry comments that it really isn't such a bad-looking shirt after all. Fade to black.

The actual, infamously unfashionable puffy shirt is now displayed alongside such showbiz icons as Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and "Sesame Street"'s Kermit the Frog. "Seinfeld" ran for nine seasons, with seemingly countless plots, bits and set pieces. So why was this the item chosen for posterity? The most likely reason is that Seinfeld was famously a show "about nothing," where no thing mattered as much as ordinary situations that went hilariously awry. There weren't all that many notable objects. George's briefly used hairpiece (don't ask) might have been given Smithsonian status, or even the stage set for Kramer's faux talk show (really, don't ask). But much to Jerry Seinfeld's surprise, the outlandish, retro swashbuckling shirt—despite its lack of a buckle or even much noticeable swash—has improbably come to stand for the sitcom's sense of manic, often surreal hilarity. As Seinfeld said at the November 18 donation ceremony in Washington, D.C., "It looks funny and it sounds funny, and that's a good combination for a joke."