Feature: A brief history of the political t-shirt / Dazed Digital

Feature: A brief history of the political t-shirt / Dazed Digital

The t-shirt is arguably fashion’s greatest leveller: the most popular and affordable item of clothing on the planet, it offers comfort and utility across all genders, classes and cultures. But at what point did the humble t-shirt become the Trojan horse of style: a vessel for political discourse to sneak into our wardrobes?

A new exhibition opening this week at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, T-Shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion, traces the garment’s history all the way back to its beginnings, selecting key turning points in the relationship between the use of the t-shirt as political tool and wider social and cultural shifts. It becomes instantly obvious that the t-shirt’s role as a platform for sloganeering lies simply in being innocuous – like a second skin, it does away with any distractions that could otherwise undermine the impact of a punchy political statement.

It’s easy to mock the potential impact a t-shirt can have on politics. But as the exhibition makes clear, it’s a two-part process: using the wider awareness that a t-shirt can bring to a cause, then harnessing that attention to encourage others to incite real change. You have to start somewhere, and wearing your heart (quite literally) on your sleeve can force difficult conversations to take place in the open. As the grande dame of the political t-shirt, Katharine Hamnett, puts it: “a successful t-shirt has to make you think but then, crucially, you have to act.”

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