Last month, at the London Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2018, Delhi-born, London-based designer Ashish Gupta’s rainbow-hued sequinned slogan shirts took clever digs at excessive consumerism, with credit card brand names and logos rejigged into: “American Excess", “Masturbate" and “Viva(L’Amore)". An ongoing exhibit at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion (till 6 May), charts the T-shirt’s ability to bring about social change, via 200 iconic archival pieces.

While actor Marlon Brando may have popularized the classic tee on screen with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), it was American Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey who used the first-ever slogan T-shirt in 1948 for his “Dew it with Dewey" presidential campaign—albeit with not much political success. Over the years, the slogan tee grew in popularity with the setting up of Disneyland and sale of their graphic tees in the 1950s, iconic pop artist Andy Warhol’s silk-screen printing technology of the 1960s, and the rise of pop music fandom (think The Rolling Stones) and anti-war protests, specifically the Vietnam War, during the 1960s.

The 1970s and 1980s were seminal for the tee out to challenge the establishment. English designer Katharine Hamnett launched politics on cotton—she met the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 sporting a T-shirt with an anti-nuclear message. Hamnett was quoted in The Guardian (2009): “Slogans work on so 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." British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood pushed forth her punk movement with slogan tees, while also reflecting political causes like nuclear disarmament and climate change, the latter as recent as 2013.

Ashish Gupta’s Autumn/Winter 2018 show at the London Fashion Week
Ashish Gupta’s Autumn/Winter 2018 show at the London Fashion Week

Inevitably, the feminist ball started rolling as part of the sartorial activism. Formed in New York in 1985, Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of feminist activist artists fighting sexism and racism within the art world, took their poster, Advantages Of Being A Woman Artist, on to a T-shirt, among other things. The Fawcett Society, a UK-based charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights, teamed up with Elle UK and the high-street chain Whistles for the This is what a feminist looks like campaign in 2014—which, incidentally, faced a pushback with questions about the ethical production of the tees by the organization.

Maria Grazia Chiuri opted for “We should all be feminists" for her very first collection for the French fashion house, Dior, in October 2016, restarting the politics of feminism on a T-shirt; at the recently concluded Dior Autumn/Winter 2018-19 show, the statement sweater worn by model Ruth Bell, “C’est Non, Non, Non et Non!", was a throwback to the defiant Youthquake spirit of Paris in the 1960s, and the nascent feminist movement gathering momentum at the time. You could’ve been living under a rock and still not have missed the slogan T-shirts on the runways at the New York Fashion Week 2017, with Nepalese-American, New York-based designer Prabal Gurung’s “The future is female", and New York-based fashion and lifestyle brand Creatures of Comfort stating, “We are all human beings." While questions may be raised about the imperfections of the fashion industry, such as the ethical and eco-friendly production of these tees, the power of a slogan T-shirt to keep the spotlight on topics like misogyny has remained strong.

When statements are rife, so are controversies. Just a couple of months ago, Swedish high-street label H&M created a furore with an ad featuring an African-American child donning a hooded green sweatshirt with the words, “Coolest monkey in the jungle", while online retail firm Amazon recalled children’s clothes bearing the slogan, “Slavery gets sh-t done."

Sir Paul McCartney at the March for Our Lives rally in New York earlier this week. Photo: Instagram
Sir Paul McCartney at the March for Our Lives rally in New York earlier this week. Photo: Instagram

American high-street brands are uncomfortably familiar with T-shirt controversies. Running the gamut of sensitive topics are Abercrombie & Fitch’s Asian stereotype-propagator, “Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs will make it white" (2002), Urban Outfitters’ anorexia-promoting “Eat less" (2010), American Apparel’s borderline-paedophiliac “Teenagers do it better" (2011), and JCPenney’s anti-feminist “I’m too pretty to do homework...so my brother has to do it for me" (2011) T-shirts. Not to forget popular sportswear brand Nike running with “Gold Digging" (2012) and pro-drug terminology like “Get High" and “Dope" (2011), with their affirmative tick mark logo featured below. Conde Nast Traveller’s October-November 2016 Indian edition cover with Priyanka Chopra wearing a custom tee upset some with words like “Refugee" and “Immigrant", forcing the actor to issue a public apology.

Slogans work on so 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.-

The democratic garment is no stranger to political controversies either. When Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman" during the final presidential debate in 2016, Amanda Brinkman, founder of ethical, women-driven lifestyle products site Shrill Society (earlier known as Google Ghost), created a satirical “Nasty Woman" T-shirt while the debate was live. Her creation went viral, selling nearly 10,000 pieces overnight. It became a symbol of anti-Trump resistance, with Hillary Clinton tweeting a video of actor Will Ferrell wearing the shirt. Says Brinkman, “Being able to identify with others through visual clothing choices is a powerful way to seek out and find like-minded individuals. When Trump called Clinton a ‘nasty woman’, it resonated with women everywhere who get talked down to despite (or perhaps, because of) their intelligence, ambitions, and desires."

Delhi-based ethical young brand Doodlage uses slogans as a part of its fashion vocabulary. Says founder Kriti Tula, “Clothing is a means of self-expression and slogans allow you to be more vocal and expressive, and make a statement." Besides self-expression, perhaps, the T-shirt is really a neutral canvas on which you can paint your thoughts. Unfortunately, many of the T-shirt conversation starters over the decades are still relevant today. Which makes one wonder if there is enough change happening in the world, one slogan tee at a time.

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