T-Shirts are an item of clothing that’s formed like a T. It can have long or short sleeves, be a plain color, printed or multi-coloured. They’re just about omnipresent wherever you go in the world, and are in production since the early twentieth century, even though they only achieved world popularity from the 1940’s when the US Navy adopted shirts (crew tops) as a part of their uniform.
The T-shirt is arguably fashion’s greatest leveller: the most widespread and affordable item of wear on the world, it offers comfort and utility across all genders, classes and cultures. however at what point in time did the humble T-shirt become the trojan horse of fashion, as a vessel for political discourse to sneak into our wardrobes?
The T-shirt as we all know it today is an fashion staple. the simple} garment is so deeply established in world culture that it’s easy to forget that, comparatively speaking, the T-shirt itself is fairly young.
The origins of the T-shirt start to the late nineteenth century, when laborers would cut their jumpsuits in half to stay cool in hotter months during the year.
Even then, it took until 1920 for the particular term “t-shirt” to be inducted into the English lexicon, due in part to F. Scott Fitzgerald being the first person to publish the word in his novel This Side of Paradise.
“So early in September Amory,” writes Fitzgerald, “provided with ‘six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or t-shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc,’ set out for new England, the land of schools.”
Though the T-shirt was created during the early twentieth century, it had been rare to envision it worn as anything apart from an undergarment. It wasn’t uncommon to see veterans carrying a T-shirt tucked into their trousers post-World War II, however outside of that, t-shirts were nearly completely used beneath “proper” outer garments..
It becomes instantly obvious that the t-shirt’s role as a platform for slogans lies merely in being innocuous – sort of a second skin, it does away with any distractions that might otherwise undermine the impact of a punchy political statement.
It’s straightforward to mock the potential impact a T-shirt will have on politics. however as the exhibition makes clear, it’s a two-part process: using the wider awareness that a T-shirt can waken a cause, then harnessing that focus to encourage others to incite real change. you have got to start out somewhere, and wearing your heart (quite literally) on your sleeve will force polemical conversations to take place in the open.
The history of the T-shirt has perpetually been indivisible from social and economic concerns: at first developed by the U.S. Navy as a sensible variety of undergarment that might be simply washed, this versatile new garment allowed uniforms to be worn for days in a row. From here it spread to other industries requiring manual labor, specifically agriculture and manufacturing. in this sense, the plain white tee has invariably been tied to social hierarchy, because the as the uniform of the post-industrial class – though ironically, the term ‘t-shirt’ was coined within the Nineteen Twenties by that notable historian of America’s great and good: F. Scott Fitzgerald.
A major shift in how the T-shirt was perceived happened on the silver screen, with Marlon Brando’s performance with the beastly Stanley Kowalski in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. The tight fit and folded sleeves made for a tantalising show of Brando’s robust body and trunk-like biceps, ushering rolled-up sleeves made for a tantalising show of Brando’s robust body and trunk-like biceps, ushering in a new era of the male star as sex object. while it no doubt played on stereotype and an unsavoury association of crime with the class, along with James Dean’s 1955 turn in Rebel Without A Cause, it planted the seed for the T-shirt as the cultural renegade’s garment of selection.
Despite originating from the standard fabric treatment techniques of Indian bandhani and Japanese shibori, the tie-dye trend only caught on in the West throughout the Sixties. as the Vietnam War raged on, american youth searched for a way of rebellion against the ideology of their parents’.
generation, moving towards older, hands-on techniques that corresponded to the rising trends of new age philosophy and rock music. Plus, the patterns fashioned by tie-dye certainly increased the effects of that alternative beloved 60s psychedelic recreation: dropping industrial quantities of acid.
No history of the political T-shirt might go can mentioning Katharine Hamnett, who caused a stir during Nineteen Eighties together with her impactful political slogans in bold type. during a decade of unrestrained consumerism, Hamnett took the rhetoric of advertising and craftily refashioned it for liberal political causes. Her most notable moment occurred upon being invited to a reception at the heart of British political life, ten Downing Street. concealed a T-shirt in beneath her coat, she shook Margaret Thatcher’s hand wearing “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING”, a statement reiterating the public opposition to the Prime Minister granting the United States of America permission to station nuclear missiles on British soil. The image ended up on the front cover of newspapers, bringing widespread attention to the Campaign for Nuclear disarmament cause – according to Whitehall legend, it was one of the few times ministers ever saw the stateswoman visibly perturbed.
The 1990s and 2000s were more about ironic tees than direct political statements – take the war on drugs DARE designs, that were co-opted by youth and popped up on screen courtesy of filmmakers like Gregg Araki. The era’s most political T-shirt was also its least political: the one depicting Che Guevara, Cuba’s revolutionary guerrilla leader. We’ve already written the secret History of the Che tee, however here’s the main takeaway: the original image by Alberto Korda was changed into a pop art piece by Jim Fitzpatrick that, after being erroneously attributed to Andy Warhol, achieved a form of pre-internet viral standing. in a} very ironic moment, the image of the anti-capitalist revolutionary would endure to be sold on products by firms including Gap, Urban Outfitters, Belstaff, Vans, and Louis Vuitton.
A more accurate reflection of what a political expression tee for today might look like comes by way of 18-year old designer Kayla Robinson, who began manufacturing t-shirts via her upstart clothing brand green Box shop reading “Why Be Racist, Sexist, homophobic or Transphobic when you just simply Be Quiet”, paraphrasing a 2015 tweet by 18-year-old Brandon Male. much to her surprise, she finished up being the main target of wider attention in August 2017 once Frank Ocean wore her T-shirt to perform at Panorama Music competition, creating international headlines as the T-shirt became a woke millennial must-have. With Robinson donating five hundredth of the $18.99 price to charity whereas guaranteeing ethical manufacture and therefore the use of fair-trade materials, it’s socially conscious fashion that puts its money where its mouth is – and an indication that for a new and politically outspoken generation, the T-shirt might have a wholly new lease of life.