Say it with a t-shirt

For A/W 19, Dior opened its catwalk show with a statement: “Sisterhood Is Global.” Written in bold blue lettering, across a white t-shirt, the slogan continued the feminist message that creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, has voiced since accepting the job in 2016. And this season’s t-shirt seemed to declare, “this feminism is not just for wealthy, western societies, nor for white women alone – this feminism is for women everywhere”.

It may seem redundant to wear such an important message on a t-shirt, that most mundane item of clothing. No doubt too, the Dior shirt’s £580 price tag severely limits the number of women who can actually buy it. But Chiuri’s designs have spurned copycats across the high street, where feminist slogan t-shirts are now ubiquitous, for less than the designer price.

And it’s not only gender politics at play in the t-shirt market at the moment. Artists including Jeremy Deller and Wolfgang Tillmans have shown their anti-Brexit feelings by producing cheeky t-shirt designs, while British-Indian fashion star Ashish wrily stated his with this “Immigrant” slogan. Since the BBC TV show Blue Planet II highlighted the destruction caused to the world’s oceans by consumer waste, several high street brands have made an effort to up their eco credentials, and Topshop is encouraging its customers to wear theirs, with this organic cotton “Save The Sea” t-shirt. Meanwhile, vegan-friendly designer Stella McCartney literally spells out “Organic” on hers. 

Fashion activism – origins of the slogan t-shirt

The slogan t-shirt trend is far from new, however. Its origins in popular culture can be traced back to the 1980s, when British designer Katharine Hamnett decided that the best way to convey her political message was to wear it — literally. In 1984, she was invited to meet Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street. A strong opponent of the then-Prime Minister’s policies, she agreed to attend only because she knew it would be a “good photo opportunity.” With the cameras turned on her, Hamnett opened her jacket to reveal a homemade t-shirt beneath, with its bold black and white slogan: “58% Don’t Want Pershing.” It was a protest against the US Nuclear missiles then being flown over European airspace, and a protest in turn against Thatcher.

slogan t-shirts

Keeping the slogan tee trend alive

Since then, Hamnett has continued to campaign for political causes with the t-shirt as her message board. Her “Choose Life” t-shirts, made at the height of the AIDS crisis in the mid-80s, were worn by major celebrities including George Michael. Later that decade she spearheaded the environmental campaigning now much more mainstream in fashion, with her “Clean Up Or Die” collection, and more recently she relaunched her slogan t-shirt collection in protest against Brexit, and the presidency of Donald Trump, among other issues.

Vivienne Westwood, too, has for years used t-shirts to make her feelings known. A longstanding environmental campaigner, she has continued to splash her “Buy less, choose well” message across t-shirts over the past few seasons, slightly paradoxically encouraging customers not to buy her clothing in order to help save the planet. For A/W 19 her t-shirts carried the apocalyptic message, “We sold our soul for consumption.” 

The trend continues

Today, if there’s a cause you care about, you can probably find a t-shirt for it. The popularity of political merchandise, such as that in support of US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka “The Notorious RBG”) and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, shows that liberal-leaning consumers at least are keen to use their bodies, as well as their votes, towards political ends. While some slogan t-shirts are just for fun, many carry important messages, about the environment, gender, and justice. They may just be pieces of cloth, but t-shirts can certainly carry a message.

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