From Political, To A Joke, And Back Again: The History Of The Slogan T-Shirt

by: Rosie Dalton | 2 years ago | Features

Image: Katharine Hamnett wearing one of her signature slogan tees. Image source.

You have probably seen Dior’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ T-shirt by now, or versions thereof presented by other designers across the world. But the slogan tee is certainly nothing new and, in fact, it has a rich history that ranges from the political, to the humorous and right back around again. As the contemporary landscape pushes more brands to revisit the power of this sartorial piece then, we’re revisiting its roots to demonstrate that you really can say a great deal by simply wearing your beliefs on your sleeve (or, in this case, chest). 

This is true in terms of shopping to reflect your values, of course, but it is also true in a more literal sense as well. Enter the slogan T-shirt. It’s original arrival into the fashion landscape came by way of Dame Vivienne Westwood (because of course it did). Back in the seventies, the designer sold subversive tees at her London store SEX, repurposing political iconography into bold punk messaging. Case in point: the swastika and inverted crucifix tee with the words ‘DESTROY’ written above. 

Disney cartoon character tees sold by London shop Mr Freedom were just about the only thing to precede Viv’s own politicised versions in the ’60s, but it was her deft hand that really put them on the fashion map. After that, designer and activist Katharine Hamnett stepped in to really up the ante. Inventing the slogan T-shirt as we now know it, her political versions were simple and to the point, boasting black block text on a classic white T-shirt. Never one to shy away from controversy, the designer even wore one of her 58% People Don’t Want Pershing tees to meet Margaret Thatcher in1984, during a time when basing pershing missiles in England was a hotly debated issue.

“Slogans work on so many different levels; they’re almost subliminal,” Hamnett has since explained. “They’re also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They’re tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself.” We happen to believe that the same is actually true whether or not there is text on your shirtfront — because ultimately your purchasing decisions reflect your personal brand and beliefs. But by choosing to articulate the matter into words, you can really take things that extra mile. Over the years, for example, Hamnett has lobbied against pesticide use and child labour in the fashion industry and she has used her radical T-shirts as yet another way to spread the messages most important to her. 

Where slogan T-shirts perhaps began to lose their political power, though, was when they veered off into humourous territory. And British designer Henry Holland was largely responsible for this shift, by paying homage to his favourite designers through brightly coloured, tongue-in-cheek slogan tees. ‘Do me daily Christopher Bailey,’ ‘Get yer freak on Giles Deacon’ and ‘What a corker Karen Walker’ all made appearances here. But even though Holland’s joke style approach to the slogan T-shirt may have represented a departure from the garment’s political roots, it still signified a way for people to communicate their values — the value of good humour, in this case.

Today, the slogan T-shirt has largely been reinstated to its political mantle again, with designers using this sartorial real estate to spread important messages about gender equality and the state of the world. Dior designer Maria Grazia Chiuri was just one example of this in action, while others such as Prabal Gurung, Ashish and Haider Ackermann also continued the spirit of protest with messages like “The Future is Female,” “Love Sees No Colour” and “Be Your Own Hero”. Which pretty much brings things full circle as far as the slogan tee is concerned, spurred on by the current state of things worldwide. 

As Donald Trump continues to threaten the rights of women and other marginalised groups in America, it has never felt so critical that we wear our political values on our sartorial sleeves. Which is why it’s so important to make sure that your messages count when it comes to this age-old fashion staple. "A successful T-shirt has to make you think but then, crucially, you have to act," Hamnett points out. "What's tragic is that most of these messages [from the 80s] are still relevant today. These problems — nuclear weapons, world poverty and famine — are still around." Not to mention the problems of slave labour and environmental degradation as well. So when it comes to slogan T-shirts and your wardrobe in general, make sure that you back up your words with the actions to match. 

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