The way we present ourselves to society has always been a powerful tool of self-expression. Today, the slogan tee is both a fashion trend and a political statement.
The first political t-shirt emerged in the 70s when Vivienne Westwood established the now legendary “SEX” boutique in London. The collection in question featured depictions of homoeroticism and nudity. In 1975, a shop attendant was arrested for “indecent exposure” whilst wearing a t-shirt with an image of two cowboys touching penises. Attitudes to homosexuality in the UK had hardly improved, despite the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act.
When we talk about the slogan tee, we must mention Katharine Hamnett. At a reception for London Fashion Week at 10 Downing Street in 1984, the fashion designer shocked Margaret Thatcher and the country. As Hamnett went to shake the PM’s hand, she undid her jacket to reveal a bold message on her t-shirt beneath: “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING”. The statement came from a European Union poll on the stationing of American cruise and Pershing missiles across Europe without the consultation of the electorate. The photographs of Hamnett and Thatcher were published across the world, and, as a result, the campaign for nuclear disarmament received increased attention at the height of the Cold War.
In terms of Black Lives Matter, a movement that began in the summer of 2013 after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, the use of the slogan tee to raise awareness is a divisive subject. We live in an era defined by fast fashion and commercialism where there is a sinister and pervasive emphasis on profit, success, and immediate results. The reason this presents a problem is that it can potentially challenge the authenticity of the message of slogan-tees. If as an individual, you have the desire to go to a protest to donate or sign a petition calling for change, the temptation to buy into a false sense of solidarity is a real threat to the positive difference you feel you are making.
For those who desire a political t-shirt reflective of the times, the simplest way to combat this darkly ironic reality is to be socially conscious on all fronts. Seek out sustainable, fair trade and environmentally ethical sources for your products. Or better yet, purchase from Black sellers and businesses, or brands that have promised to donate proceeds to bail funds, or the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Most of all, ensure that your consumer choices are bolder than just making a statement.