Charting the History of the Slogan T-Shirt

How simple words on a garment can help bring about social and cultural change.

White, T-shirt, Fashion, Outerwear, Fun, Cool, Sleeve, Font, Black-and-white, Top,
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When Maria Grazia Chiuri sent her "We should all be feminists" T-shirt down the Dior catwalk in her very first collection for the French fashion house in October 2016, she reignited the flame for bringing politics into our everyday wear. Since then, we have seen an entire feminist T-shirt movement, Trump-influenced memorabilia en masse, a pro-EU hoodie from Vetements and many, many more examples of politically motivated fashion, more often than not, in the form of the slogan T-shirt.

Of course, Chiuri did not invent the slogan tee and this is not simply another Nineties throwback—these are pieces of clothing that have been allowing us to subtly send messages since as far back as the 1960s.

This is the focus of The Fashion & Textile Museum's latest exhibition. "T-Shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion"—which opened on 9 February—charts the T-shirt's revolution via 200 archival pieces, hoping to prove how simple words on a garment can help bring about social and cultural change.

Katharine Hamnett

'Katherine Hamnett and a woman in 1985 wearing Hamnett’s designs'

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It all began in the 1960s when a shop called Mr Freedom on the King's Road in Chelsea sold Disney-inspired slogan tees. Vivienne Westwood took the trend a step further the next decade with politically motivated T-shirts, but it was in the 1980s that the slogan tee really came into its own with Katharine Hamnett's infamous designs.

"That T-shirt gave me a voice," Hamnett said of the moment she shook hands with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while wearing a T-shirt that read, "58% don't want Pershing," an anti-nuclear statement. That stunt made Hamnett's T-shirts must-haves and the idea was copied everywhere, think "Frankie says relax" and "Choose life."

"I wanted to put a really large message on T-shirts that could be read from 20 or 30ft away," Hamnett told The Guardian. "Slogans work on so many different levels; they're almost subliminal. They're also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They're tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself."

Slogan T-Shirt

'Benedict Cumberbatch modeling the Fawcett Commission T-shirt and MP Caroline Lucas’s protest tee'

(Image credit: Getty Images)

This idea of wearing a political message on your clothing certainly hasn't gone away–remember when the Fawcett Committee teamed up with Whistles for the "This is what a feminist looks like" campaign or the MP Caroline Lucas' "No more Page Three" House of Commons protest? But, it's not all been about politics. In 2006, Henry Holland injected some fun into the idea with his irreverent slogan tees.

"Cause me pain Hedi Slimane" and "Do me daily Christopher Bailey" were just two of Holland's iconic slogans which have become synonymous with the designer, so much so that just a few seasons ago—for his 10th anniversary—models came down the catwalk in "Let's breed Bella Hadid," "Give us a toss Karlie Kloss" and "I'm yours for a tenner Kendall Jenner."

Henry Holland T-Shirt

'Henry Holland’s slogan T-shirts'

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"Hamnett's T-shirts were very much about an ethical message or a political message," Holland said in 2006. "Mine are much more a bit of fun, a bit tongue-in-cheek and a way for the fashion industry to laugh at itself."

And Holland was not the only designer to revisit the idea. Chiuri showed her first collection for Dior in October 2016 with the "We should all be feminists" white tee outshining even the most beautiful of the tulle gowns. Vetements, DKNY, and Alexander Wang have also been on the slogan-T-shirt bandwagon for the last few seasons.

Dior DKNY Slogan T-Shirt

'Dior spring/summer 2017 and DKNY autumn/winter 2016'

(Image credit: Getty Images)

So whether it's a political statement or a fashion statement you want to make, we suggest you say it with a slogan this spring.