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Shirt tales

Shirt tales

More than mere garments, T-shirts have been vehicles for protest and self-promotion since the 1930s. A new exhibition explores their surprising cultural history

More than mere garments, T-shirts have been vehicles for protest and self-promotion since the 1930s. A new exhibition explores their surprising cultural history

Kassia St Clair | February 20th 2018

The world’s cotton supplies were so great at the end of 2015 that economists estimated there was enough stockpiled to make 127bn T-shirts: 17 for each and every single person on the planet. It is telling that the T-shirt was the unit used to illustrate the point. It is as close as you can get to a universal garment: no matter what your gender, income, or even where you live, the odds are that you own one.

Because of this ubiquity, T-shirts have long been used as more than mere items of clothing. Since the 1930s, designers, activists and brands have been using them for advertising, turning the wearer into a walking billboard. A new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, “T-Shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion”, explores their cultural significance. With exhibits ranging from a T-shirt used to promote a David Bowie album to recent designs extolling the virtues of ecological fashion, it unpicks the myriad ways in which the T-shirt has been used to broadcast beliefs, signal membership of a cultural tribe, or to protest against social, political or environmental wrongs.

“Aladdin Sane” (1981, above)

The first time a T-shirt was used as a marketing tool was in 1939, as a way of promoting the film “The Wizard of Oz” (unfortunately, no photographs of the T-shirt exist). But it was the music industry, rather than Hollywood, that embraced the T-shirt as its own. By the 1960s band T-shirts – emblazoned with logos, lyrics or the faces of musicians themselves – had become a popular method of advertising. This cut two ways: for the musicians themselves, T-shirts sent their work walking down the street; for their fans they signalled tribal loyalty. This one shows Alladin Sane, the persona devised by David Bowie for his sixth album. The model is Wendy May, the girlfriend of Billy Idol, who founded the punk-rock band Generation X. T-shirts were an important part of the punk armory. In his autobiography, Idol says that around the time this photo was taken he and his crew, including May, ran into a hostile group of Teddy Boys dressed like louche Edwardian dandies. While Idol “cowered in fright” in the station loos, May beat one of them up.


“58% don’t want Pershing” (1984)

When Katherine Hamnett, a British fashion designer, received an invitation to a party hosted by Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, she thought twice about going. She was worried that her attendance might be interpreted as tacit support for the Iron Lady, many of whose policies she disagreed with. Then she had an idea. She knocked up a T-shirt at the last minute, with the slogan “58% don’t want Pershing” – a reference to the public’s opposition to American missiles being stored on British soil. The photograph was published in newspapers around the world. 


“Wild Thing” (1971)

The “Wild Thing” T-shirt, worn here by a young woman in Brixton Market in London in 1971, was designed by John Dove and Molly White. They had joined forces three years earlier to create large runs of inventive, silk-screen printed designs, but their real breakthrough came when they discovered a way of printing vibrant colours onto black fabric, well before other people had managed to do so. This design, which also sparkled with rhinestones, was one of their most successful. Created as a tribute to songs by the Troggs and Jimi Hendrix, it became a global hit. By 1973 more than a hundred T-shirts were being pumped out of the Dove and White studio every day – the majority of them Wild Things.


“We Should All be Feminists” (2016)

No matter how humble a garment or how subversive its spirit, it will, sooner or later, be adopted by high fashion. Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt caused a sensation when it was sent down the catwalk in 2017. Some heralded it as capturing the zeitgeist and celebrating a new era – it was from the first collection of Maria Grazia Ghiuri, the first woman to hold the post of creative director at Dior. But others accused the brand of cynically using feminism to sell clothes. The T-shirt, incidentally, costs £490.


“Single-use plastic is never fantastic” (2017)

Slogan T-shirts are a mainstay of the fast-fashion machine. Millions are made, bought, barely worn and then thrown away each year. Moreover, the vast majority of such garments are made of cheap, difficult-to-recycle dyed cotton – an unmitigated environmental disaster – and the inks used to embellish them are themselves made from a kind of plastic. This T-shirt, modelled by its designer Henry Holland, is more kosher. It’s made from recycled plastic and salvaged cotton to promote an ecological message. Yet however ethically sound their materials, T-shirts are made to be disposable. That makes them, at best, problematic bearers of environmental messages. Sometimes the medium can be antithetical to the message.

T-Shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion The Fashion and Textile Museum, London, until May 6th 2018