I’m With StupidA short history of slogan T-shirts.

I’m With StupidA short history of slogan T-shirts.

Issue 51

, Starters

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  • Words Rosalind Jana
  • Photo Hendrik Schwab

Hamnett has continued to produce a range of slogan T-shirts over the decades and one can map an ever-evolving series of British political concerns through her output, from her 2003 “Stop War, Blair Out” to more recent entreaties like “Cancel Brexit” and “Climate Action Now.”

In 1984, the British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett met then–Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at an event in honor of London Fashion Week. Hamnett wore her coat through security screenings, keeping it wrapped around her until the moment she shook Thatcher’s hand. As the cameras flashed, Hamnett revealed a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING.” Thatcher, apparently, squawked like a chicken. 

Hamnett was protesting the escalating threat of nuclear armament: “Pershing” was the name of the nuclear missiles stationed throughout Europe without public consultation. It remains one of the most successful protest T-shirt stunts ever pulled. Although they had been around since the ’60s, something about the charged atmosphere of the ’80s encouraged wider protest in fabric form. Hamnett was at the head of the charge in the UK, while Keith Haring’s 1989 Act Up T-shirt, reading “Ignorance=Fear / Silence=Death,” captured the apathy and stigma of the US governmental and social response to the devastation of the AIDs crisis.1

In subsequent decades, strong sentiments segued into irony and canny media messaging. Think Britney Spears in her “Dump Him” T-shirt or Paris Hilton’s white tank top embellished with “Stop Being Desperate.” For British designer Henry Holland in 2007, it became a case of co-opting a Hamnett-style aesthetic in pop colors with naughty fashion-themed slogans (“Cause Me Pain Hedi Slimane,” for example). A brief flurry of T-shirts endorsing gender equality followed in the 2010s, with Maria Grazia Chiuri’s $710 “We Should All Be Feminists” white tee launching a thousand think pieces. 

Looking back now from our relatively politically anesthetized vantage point, there’s a certain purity about an ’80s slogan T-shirt. It seems to represent an optimism that has slowly dissipated, a belief in an individual’s capacity to enact change or at least wear their beliefs loud and proud. Donning a T-shirt that says “Peace” today would likely feel not just inadequate, but naive. A tension between fabric and message also prevails: Another feminism-themed T-shirt produced by the Fawcett Society—a UK charity that champions women’s rights—ran into trouble in 2014 when it was revealed that the tops were produced in a Mauritian sweatshop by a predominantly female workforce who were paid under a dollar an hour. 

There are still plenty of text-based textiles around. Bella Freud sneaks into the slogan tee category with her sly wordplay. For her, however, it’s about language in its purest form. “I love finding words that work independently of any context,” she explains. “I made a jumper with the word ‘Oh.’ It could mean anything.” For other designers, like Ashish Gupta, whose sequined T-shirts are emblazoned with statements such as “Immigrant” or “Planned Parenthood,” there’s still a strong political imperative. “It’s important to have immediacy,” he says. “Reducing attention spans and constant information… makes it necessary to keep it direct and punchy. Having said that, it doesn’t mean it has to be lacking in nuance or layered meaning.” For Gupta, there’s a permanence not just in his message, but in his method of manufacture. His sequins are meticulously hand-embroidered, turning something that could be relatively disposable into an object of value. 

The question for today’s wearer of the slogan T-shirt is about what they hope to achieve. There’s still plenty left to shout about. One just has to find the right words. As always, it’s easier to say something hollow or generic than it is to be specific. The recent example of actress and author Charlie Craggs’ T-shirt dress worn on the red carpet at Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year Awards is a good blueprint; its slogan reads “Transphobia Will Never Be Glamour.”

Hamnett has continued to produce a range of slogan T-shirts over the decades and one can map an ever-evolving series of British political concerns through her output, from her 2003 “Stop War, Blair Out” to more recent entreaties like “Cancel Brexit” and “Climate Action Now.”

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 51

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