From the plebeian tunic of Ancient Rome to the army fatigues of WWII, it can be argued that the T-shirt (and it’s ancestors) has always been the most ubiquitous of apparel. Yet it was only since the 50s and 60s, with successive countercultures and commercialisation, that the garment has become the wearable billboard that we know today. As described in Slogan T-Shirts – Cult and Culture, a collection of various articles on the subject by Stephanie Talbot.
The book focuses on people’s views about slogan T-shirts some in the fashion industry themselves, others not. The T-shirt is the only singular piece of clothing that can consistently be a political statement as well according to Prof. Howard Besser, a collector of over 2,500 political T-shirts., who is a feature of one of the articles in the book. Such specimens in his collection include one that reads “Bush” with the ‘s’ replaced by a swastika and another with the slogan “Recycle the Rich”. Most of them were distributed amongst the crowd during demonstrations, which would then be taken home by the individual, disseminating the message in their local area purely due to the act of wearing. Another commentator, Shumon Basar argues that the slogan t-shirt is a futile yet personal relation to a political ideal, “the obligation to express your concerns even if ultimately you know your expression is impotent” as people are unlikely to change their point of view after looking at a T-shirt.
Other articles look in depth at the historical development of slogan T-shirts. Such as the 1970s Punk movement’s use of the T-shirt, a moment when politics and fashion collide. The design duo Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood made handemade T-shirts, emblazoned with Situationist slogans such as “Create Hell and Get Away With It” and with its DIY and anti-consumerist aesthetic was odds, both before and after the Punk movement, with high-street fashion. Such was the alien nature of McLaren and Westwood’s style compared to the rest of British society that they were arrested and fined for their famous naked cowboys T-shirt in 1975. It was even the duo’s designs that led to the birth of Punk music in Britain, as Punk historians, Jon Savage and Jamie Reid point out, it was only after exhibiting at a trade fair in New York that they caught the eye of musicians of the burgeoning Punk scene around CBGB’s, such as the New York Dolls and Tom Verlaine, that McLaren had the idea to promote the Sex Pistols.
Comparing the clothes of SEX in the 1970s and BOY today (the latter itself once a failed competitor with the former on the King’s Road) it can be argued that the message of youth clothing has suffered a reduction. This is acknowledged by Fashion writer Namalee Bolle, “Nobody writes whole sentences anymore. I’d say that the current youth generation is not about speaking directly with words so much because online they communicate with visuals”. BOY’s aesthetic is steeped in enigma whereas there was no doubt about what SEX’s clothing was trying to say. Such a trend is affirmed by YMC’s Fraser Moss, “Originally slogan T-shirts were a powerful medium, especially if they were driven by politically sound motives. However over the years, the power of the high street has somewhat diluted this and they have mainly become just another ironic statement. The thing I dislike about slogan T-shirts is how they have almost become a lazy way of showing which tribe you belong to rather than making a valued statement.”
Talbot’s book reveals a lot to the everyday reader about the changing psychology behind fashion and the power behind the meanings that the casual wearer fails to understand. The utility of the slogan T-shirt may also be it’s downfall, where the message is either forgotten or twisted beyond recognition, making any meaningful attempt to affect people’s thinking through the wearing of clothes futile in the long term.