Sociological theories have tried to explain the motives of human clothing, for long. Sociologists believe that a dress code is not motivated only by modesty, adornment and protection, but also by the political culture of a country or a society as of now. They also believe that dress is another medium of communication in the modern world.
To portray the role of T-shirts as a master communication tool used to carry subversive and campaigning messages to the world, London-based Fashion and Textile Museum is organising an exhibition – titled ‘T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion’. The event, opened on February 9, is showcasing more than 100 T-shirts, which have great impacts on popular culture and society in recent times.
The museum authorities said in a statement: “Since its earliest incarnation at the start of the 20th century, the T-shirt has served as a means to broadcast social, musical and political passions.” According to the statement, the US Navy had included T-shirt in its kit list way back in 1913. At that time, T-shirts used to mean a short-sleeve white cotton undervest.
The T-shirt took almost three decades to gain popularity as it hit the Hollywood in Marlon Brandon’s 1951 blockbuster ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. During this period, the T-shirt had also become a weapon of political and social campaigns, as political activists, environmentalists and gay rights activists – wearing T-shirts – started taking part in mass protests. “It’s the kind of most democratic form of clothing, but also with the use of silkscreen you can reproduce messages over and over,” stressed Dennis Nothdruft, the head (exhibitions) of the museum.
In England, fashion designer Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood triggered a sensation in 1977 by designing a T-shirt with a wildly subversive image of Queen Elizabeth created by noted artist and anarchist Jamie Reid on it. Reid gleefully deconstructed Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Her Majesty in that image, named “God Save the Queen”. “The Queen is a sacred object in England, so just to do that was such a shock to the system,” Nothdruft said.
T-shirts have been used in anti-government protests also in Africa, Latin America and the US. In 1976, artists John Dove and Molly White used an image of famous cartoon character ‘Mickey Mouse’ on a T-shirt as a critique of US policies. Dove and White’s Mickey was standing in front of the cloud of an atom bomb. However, Disney described the image as “anti-American” and forced the designers to stop selling the T-shirt.
American street artist Keith Haring, too, printed his views onto T-shirts. American people still remember his “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death” image of 1990. Haring designed the T-shirt for ‘Act Up’, an organisation that launched a campaign against homophobia and a lack of knowledge about AIDS.
T-shirts are still playing an important role in political movements…… Artist Jeremy Deller reacted to Britain’s decision to leave the EU with a politically-charged message on a T-shirt. He wrote “Don’t worry, f**k Brexit” around a smiley face in matching yellow, combining with the blue background to match the colours of the EU flag.
Nothdruft said that the February 9- May 6 exhibition tries to explore how luxury brands, such as Dior, use the clothing to send strong messages to the people. In 2017, the company created a “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt, using the title of a publication authored by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Five years ago, Britons – wearing ‘No More Page Three’ T-shirt – staged protests against topless models in The Sun tabloid near the Westminster, considered as the heart of Britain’s political establishment.
Even MP Caroline Lucas, wearing the T-shirt, entered into the Parliament in 2013. However, she was told that her clothing was “not in line with regulations”. Later, Lucas held up an image of one of the page three models, stressing: “It strikes me as an irony that this T-shirt is seen as offensive.”
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