A New Exhibition Charts The T-Shirt's History Of Protest

Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images
Maria Grazia Chiuri's debut at Dior in September 2016 featured a now-ubiquitous T-shirt reading 'We should all be feminists'. A quote taken from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Beyoncé-sampled TED talk, the sentiment rang true with those both within and outside the fashion industry. The garment itself, however, was divisive, coming from an elitist world that propels more-than-questionable representations of women, and being a product made for profit (Dior later announced that proceeds would go towards Rihanna's non-profit organisation, The Clara Lionel Foundation.)
What the T-shirt did reinvigorate, though, were conversations about fashion's role in protest – which is exactly what London's newest exhibition sets out to do, too. The Fashion and Textile Museum's T-Shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion, which opens on 9th February, charts the humble garment's evolution, from its conception, through Vivienne Westwood's outspoken slogans, to today's feminist messages. With over 200 iconic archival pieces throughout the exhibition, it shows how simply writing a message on a T-shirt can bring about social change or shifts in culture.
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Photo: Vivienne backstage protesting by Marta Lamovsek
First up, some facts about the wardrobe's most hardworking piece: although it's one of the earliest 'fashioned' garments in history, the word 'T-shirt' was only coined in 1920, in the debut novel of The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary the very same year. And film stars really did have influence over their audience, as apparently T-shirt sales dived 75% in 1934, the year heartthrob Clark Gable removed his shirt to reveal a bare chest (rather than under-shirt) in the movie It Happened One Night.
Fast-forward to the '60s and, thanks to the invention of the multicolour screen printing machine, which made printed T-shirts both cheaper and easier to produce, the T-shirt became a cultural signifier of whichever group you associated with. From the tie-dye-wearing Woodstock hippies to the rock'n'roll fans who wore the now-iconic tongue and lips tee created by John Pasche for The Rolling Stones, the garment was no longer functional but a way to make a statement.
Of course, one of the most vital ways the T-shirt has made a stir is through the personal political. Designer Katharine Hamnett has been making slogan T-shirts since the '80s, when she infamously greeted Margaret Thatcher during London Fashion Week while wearing her '58% don't want Pershing' tee, to let the then-prime minister know how the majority of the UK felt about the relocation of US missiles to UK soil.
Photo: Press Association - Thatcher Meets Hamnett
"It was huge, I had no idea it was going to become so iconic," Hamnett tells Refinery29. "The power of the slogan T-shirt is that it's on your body so it becomes a part of you, there's no filter." Despite the encounter becoming one of the most memorable political protests in modern history, and her later catwalk statements against Tony Blair's government, Hamnett discourages us from thinking that it starts and ends with a worn slogan. "While these T-shirts are always relevant, whether it's anti-nuclear or anti-pollution, it's not going to save the world. You need to get out there. Jeremy Corbyn said, 'The only thing that changes a politician's behaviour is something that threatens their ability to get re-elected'."
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She still has some faith in the statement T-shirt, though, as her most recent creation, 'Second referendum now' centres on the Brexit vote. What does she make of Chanel's SS15 protest catwalk? "It was quite funny – if the protest is being perceived as fashionable, that's good." And Dior's feminist turn? "It was how much? Although I do think designers are bound and gagged when it comes to politics." With the exception of Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney, of course.
PHOTO: GIOVANNI GIANNONI/WWD/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
Even if design houses themselves can't veer too close to the political, clothes created outside of the fashion industry often influence the decisions made within it. Think PETA's '90s anti-fur T-shirts and their impact – albeit several decades later – on brands like Gucci, which recently pledged to remove fur from its collections. Last summer, Frank Ocean donned a design by 18-year-old Kayla Robinson which read, 'Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when u could just be quiet?' influencing street stylers to wear the same statement during the following fashion month.
The humble, hardworking T-shirt has not only become a bestselling item (largely thanks, now, to athleisure) that's permeated our culture, but also a canvas on which to wear your heart, your mind and, for the switched-on and outspoken, your politics. Whether a genuine sentiment from designers or not, there's no denying the power of wearing protest on your chest.
T-Shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion is at the Fashion and Textile Museum from 9th February-6th May 2018 and will open at The Civic, Barnsley in summer 2018.