07/02/18 In The Diary: Exhibition Charting The T-Shirt’s History of Protest

Last year was a particularly vocal year for the t-shirt. Beyond it’s utilitarian and modest origins, the wardrobe staple has long been a vessel for charting signs of the times and last year was no exception.

We can track it back to the now-ubiquitous Dior T-shirt reading ‘We should all be feminists’, which debuted in September 2016 and referenced a quote taken from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Beyoncé-sampled TED talk.  While the t-shirt itself was actually quite divisive: coming from an elitist world that supports questionable representations of women and highly publicised poor treatment of models, to it being a product made for profit. Though Dior later announced all proceeds would go towards Rihanna’s non-profit organisation, The Clara Lionel Foundation.

Nevertheless, what the T-shirt did do was revive conversations about fashion’s role in protest and this is precisely what a new exhibition in London intends to do.

The Fashion and Textile Museum’s T-Shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion opens on 9th February and charts the history, culture and subversion of the most affordable and popular item of clothing on the planet, from a symbol of rock and roll rebellion, through punk and politics to luxury fashion item, including Vivienne Westwood’s outspoken slogans, to today’s feminist messages. With over 200 iconic archival pieces throughout the exhibition, it shows how simply writing a message on a T-shirt can bring about social change or shifts in culture.


westwood protest t-shirt
Image courtesy: Vivienne Westwood uses London Fashion Week to declare support for Assange | The Telegraph

Of course, one of the most vital ways the T-shirt has made a stir is through the personal political. Margaret Thatcher’s reign during the 80s politicised many a young designer, Katherine Hamnett included. Her first t-shirt, ‘Choose Life’ came out in 1983, followed by ‘Save the Sea’ and ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ (a reference to public opposition against the storing of Pershing missiles in Britain). She wore the latter to meet Thatcher in 1984.


hamnett protest t-shirt
Image courtesy: Katherine Hamnett with Margaret Thatcher | Wonderland Magazine

“It was huge, I had no idea it was going to become so iconic,” Hamnett tells Refinery29“The power of the slogan T-shirt is that it’s on your body so it becomes a part of you, there’s no filter.” Despite the encounter becoming one of the most memorable political protests in modern history, Hamnett discourages us from thinking that it starts and ends with a worn slogan. “While these T-shirts are always relevant, whether it’s anti-nuclear or anti-pollution, it’s not going to save the world. You need to get out there. Jeremy Corbyn said, ‘The only thing that changes a politician’s behaviour is something that threatens their ability to get re-elected’.”

The humble, hardworking T-shirt has not only become a bestselling item that’s permeated our culture, but it has become a canvas on which to wear your heart, your mind and your politics. While you could argue that designers are simply cashing in on the sentiment of their times or are genuinely using their designs as vehicles of change, either way there’s no denying there is power in wearing protest on your chest.

T-Shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion is at the Fashion and Textile Museum from 9th February-6th May 2018 and will open at The Civic, Barnsley in summer 2018.