The t-shirt never goes out of style and always has something to say
Vivienne Westwood protesting backstage
Though it might seem to be the ultimate manifestation of 20th-century American mass consumerism or British punk protest culture, the T-shirt is much more than that. The ongoing London exhibition T-Shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion at the Fashion and Textile Museum celebrates this historic, ubiquitous and universal garment.
Decorated T-shaped tunics date back as far as the 5th century CE and screen-printing was documented during China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). In the modern era, the garment’s precursor was established in 1913 by the US Navy, whose regulation uniform kit included a lightweight short-sleeved white-cotton undervest. The first known literary usage came in 1920, when famed American writer F Scott Fitzgerald referenced the word “T-shirt” in his debut novel This Side of Paradise. That same year, the word was officially added to Webster’s Dictionary.
Today’s iconic screen-printed T-shirts came into full swing in the UK during the 1960s and ’70s – some prominent examples include the government’s “We Don’t Smoke” in 1969 and the Rolling Stones’ “Tongue and Lips” by John Pasche the following year. In 1971, punk pioneers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren opened their legendary Let it Rock shop, which sold rock ’n’ roll memorabilia and slogan-adorned T-shirts.
In 1977, Milton Glaser’s “I Love NY” design was unveiled as part of a new marketing campaign for the state of New York. Inspired by pop art, the iconic heart has become one of the most lucrative T-shirt designs of all time.
As T-shirts transformed into identity platforms, the voice of political protest wasn’t far behind. Famed English fashion designer Katharine Hamnett met British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at London Fashion Week in 1984; the former wore a shirt that read “85% Don’t Want Pershing” – a reference to public opposition to the relocation of US missiles. (Two decades later, in 2003, Hamnett sent models down the catwalk wearing shirts with the slogan: “Stop War, Blair Out” during the Iraq War.)
T-shirt design by Beth Postle
By the year 2000, the rise of fast fashion meant that more than two billion T-shirts were being sold each year – that’s about one for every three people on the planet and that figure has since risen. The endless push for consumerism has driven many designers towards a goal of sustainability.
Technology has started to play a role today – and the textile industry has seen lots of innovation. The first bulletproof T-shirt and another that could block up to 99% of UV rays arrived in 2010. Next, the world’s first programmable T-shirt – a collaboration between Ballantine’s and wearable tech company CuteCircuit – was born two years later, allowing its wearer to display status updates and more on an LCD screen.
Then, the humble T-shirt seemed to go through the stratosphere. In 2013, for the centennial celebration of the garment’s provenance, French luxury purveyor Hermès released the most expensive T-shirt of all time, made entirely of crocodile skin and priced at US$91,500. A year later, “athleisure” overtook denim as the most popular shopping category and the release of Alexander Wang’s collection for H&M helped solidify the trend. Suddenly, T-shirts in lycra or neoprene, once reserved for the gym, became perfect for just about every other activity.
Two years ago, Vetements released its now-notorious DHL T-shirt, noted as much for its “real-life meme” as for its US$300 price tag (an original purchased directly from DHL costs about US$7). In an Inception-esque move, this was followed by the launch of Vetememes, a parody brand drawing on the social media-fuelled success of the brand that left everyone wondering if the T-shirt had finally jumped the shark.
But perhaps we’re moving into a simpler era where do-it-yourself T-shirts will take the lead. When everyone’s goal is to go viral, you don’t necessarily need a designer brand or a giant budget to create a style seen by millions. Last summer, during his performance at the Panorama Music Festival in New York City, singer Frank Ocean donned a shirt that read “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?” Social media went ballistic – as did the business of 18-year-old Kayla Robison, who makes the T-shirt for her brand Green Box Shop, where it retails for just US$20.
Maybe it’s back to basics – but whatever happens, this 5th-century icon looks as contemporary as ever.
T-Shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion is at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum until May 6. (ftmlondon.org)
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“Single-Use Plastic is Never Fantastic”, Brita x Henry Holland #swapforgood campaign, worn by Henry Holland
A provocative Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren T-shirt
Exploding Mickey T-shirts by Boy Blackmail, 1975
“The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist”, designed by Guerrilla Girls
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