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T-SHIRT: CULT – CULTURE – SUBVERSION: A Review

By Saskia Norman, 1st Year History

Dior’s “We Should all be Feminists” T-shirt was one of the most iconic fashion pieces of 2017, inspiring a myriad of imitations on the high-street. The original T-shirt, designed by Dior’s first female artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri, was inspired by an essay of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chirui was not, however, the first designer to take a simple T-shirt and turn it into a socio-political statement. Once seen only as a humble undergarment, the T-shirt is now a fashion staple and has been used since the 1970s as a vehicle for communication and protest. The evolution of the T-shirt is charted in an exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum, T-SHIRT : CULT - CULTURE - SUBVERSION. 

Although examples of decorated ‘T-shaped’ tunics can be found as far back as 500AD, T-shirts only became part of mainstream fashion in the late 1930s. Before this, they were predominantly used as warm undergarments in Navy and Army uniforms. They were later popularised by stars such as Marlin Brando, who famously wore a tight short-sleeved T-shirt in the 1951 film adaptation of a Street Car Named Desire. The exhibition’s curator Dennis Northuft said of the T-shirt’s early emergence: “it was rebellious because they were actually undergarments … it was a tough political statement”. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the T-shirt reached its full radical potential.

The exhibition begins in this decade of revolutionary social change, exploring the role of the slogan T-shirt at the peak of the second wave feminist movement, the height of the punk subculture, and the foundation of environmental awareness groups such as Greenpeace. It traces these developments through to the present day in several different sections each focused on a different use of the T-shirt as a statement piece; among these are ethics and ecology, fashion statements, pop art, music and gender.

The T-shirts on show are historical sources, allowing the viewer an insight into how radical movements of the past got their message across. Katherine Hamnett’s “CHOOSE LIFE” T-shirt, for example, is just one of a collection of protest T-shirts launched by the designer in 1983. The simple bold black text against a white background allows the wearer to make a bold, clear statement, whilst the unisex design made the T-shirt more accessible, increasing the degree to which its political message could be spread. It was worn - and thus advertised to consumers - by several celebrities, including George Michael of Wham. The slogan offers an insight into the political atmosphere in 1980s Britain, at a time when people felt the need to speak out about the prevalence of drug use and suicide, encouraging people to instead “choose life”.

The slogan T-shirt was also adopted as a means of direct protest, and was utilised by activists in the LGBT and feminist movements. The “Never Going Underground” T-shirt, for example, was designed to protest the passage of Section 28 in 1988 - legislation which restricted the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools across the UK. Activists used the London Underground logo to emphasise their marginalisation “underground”, and to suggest that that members of the LGBT community should be allowed to be open and proud of their identity.

The exhibition also explores the use of T-shirts in the feminist movement and has on display two designs by the Guerrilla Girls. One T-shirt shows the group’s logo – a woman wearing a gorilla mask – and the slogan “reinventing the f word – feminism”. This statement suggests that feminism is still taboo, but the bold design creates the impression of the Guerrilla Girls are unafraid to approach the subject and embrace the term. Another T-shirt is printed with their “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” text. They saw wearers of this T-shirt as “walking billboards”, spreading their message to a wider audience. The attention-grabbing bright pink colour of the T-shirt is humorous, playing with traditional feminine stereotypes. The use of fashion to push for women’s rights also works by appropriating traditional notions of femininity. Fashion is traditionally seen as a feminine interest, so by using it to challenge gender roles, these women were able to exploit traditional stereotypes and turn the tables, transforming fashion into a means of empowerment.

On display in the exhibition are also a range of contemporary examples, demonstrating that the slogan T-shirt has endured as a mode of protest. Many will recognise the “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, which was designed in 2014 by the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights organisation dating back to 1866. Although a very simple design, it has deep meaning. Numerous prominent figures were persuaded to wear the T-shirt in public campaigns, including Ed Miliband and Emma Watson. The T-shirt works by breaking down stereotypes of what a feminist is in the eyes of society, and working to reduce the stigma attached to the word. The designers made the T-shirt unisex, to promote equality of the sexes and indicate that men, as well as women, can be feminists.

However, this and other examples of contemporary protest T-shirts have attracted criticism, which is not sufficiently addressed in the Textile Museum’s exhibition. Slogan T-shirts risk becoming “empty statements” rather than powerful forms of protest. In some ways, they reduce political activism to the act of wearing a T-shirt, without requiring the wearer to take any further political action. Dior’s “we should all be feminists” T-shirt was particularly divisive, given the fashion world’s own complicity in promoting problematic representations of women. Nevertheless, this exhibition enhanced my appreciation of fashion as a means of historical documentation, allowing a unique insight into how people expressed their views through the means of fashion. Overall, I would highly recommend making a visit to the Fashion and Textiles Museum to view the exhibition in person. 

T-SHIRT : CULT - CULTURE - SUBVERSION is on at the Fashion and Textiles Museum until the 6th of May 2018.