Message on a T-shirt

 With slogans – such as Equal Pay Now, We Should All be Feminists, Stronger Together, I’m an Immigrant, More Trees Less Walls – the T- shirt this summer is lauded as the canvas for the younger generation’s alignment to a cause. But I wonder.

The T-shirt has been a means of political and cultural messaging since the early ’60s. 

This year’s Fashion and Textile Museum’s exhibition in London, T-shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion, catalogued the history of the garment and the political and cultural influence of its wearing. 

As curator Dennis Nothdruft explains in a foreword, “It feels quite relevant … the matter of the personal as politicised. [The T-shirt] is a really basic way of telling the world who and what you are”.

Though it was Barbara Hulanicki who broke the status quo in Britain and started marketing the T-shirt as a fashionable garment in 1964, for many it was the 1970s T-shirts of Vivienne Westwood and partner Malcolm McLaren that truly kick-started the influence and rebellious tactics that fashion, music, art and political commentary can promote. 

From their punk rock boutique selling sadomasochism (S&M) clothing and T-shirts covered in anarchic slogans, the two had a huge influence on the political commentary of the times and the punk spirit that rebelled against everything traditional and conservative. 

At the time their slogan T-shirts (normally torn and ripped) were an anomaly on the streets. Westwood’s designs embodied the punk spirit and whether hanging out with those street punks in her store or facing a magistrate for a breach of peace case in a black T-shirt and shaved head, she has maintained the fire.  She remains a fierce advocate for climate change, nuclear disarmament and other political causes. 

Another British designer Katharine Hamnett became notorious for fashion slogans in the ’80s. Her iconic meeting with then prime minister Margaret Thatcher (pictured) dressed in a “58% Don’t Want Pershing” T-shirt (referring to public opposition to basing United States Pershing missiles in the United Kingdom at the end of the Cold War) re-ignited the influence of political fashion. 

She has been quoted as saying: “I wanted to put a really large message on T-shirts that could be read from 20 or 30 feet away. Slogans work on many different levels; they’re almost subliminal. They’re also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They’re tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself”.

And so the T-shirt has been emblazoned with words, advertisements and captions over the last few decades. However, along the way there has been disruption. The logo-infested haute-couture and brand-laden collections of the late ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s has diluted the impact of the slogan T-shirt. 

Yes, the collared T-shirt with a polo-player that the business exec gets for Christmas certainly identifies an economic tribe, real or aspirational. 

But where are the signs of rebellion, political passion and cultural signposts for changing the world? Has branding replaced the impact of fashion slogans? We might see this season. 

I still worry that all those years fighting for feminist beliefs, an end to wars and poverty, nuclear disarmament, the rights of all humans to education and a peaceful life, may not have made a difference. 

As Hamnett said: “A successful T-shirt has to make you think, but then crucially, you have to act. What’s tragic is that most of these messages are still relevant today.”

But there’s a T-shirt-slogan glimmer on the horizon for those of us who lived through the those decades.  Ari Seth Cohen of Advanced Style fame @advancedstyle, in conjunction with Fanny Karst @fannykarst have recently created a T-shirt with the slogan Not Dead Yet. 

I intend to join that tribe and help my children and grandchildren understand the impact and motivation a slogan T-shirt can create.