How the t-shirt went from a wardrobe staple to a tool for change

A new exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum examines the garment in the context of its role as the “perfect blank canvas” to express opinions on everything from LGBT rights to climate change.

Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for The Fashion and Textile Museum

Update 29 March 2018: T-Shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion is set to open at The Civic, Hanson Street, Barnsley S70 2HZ from 23 June – 22 September 2018. Entry is free. For more info, head here.

The humble t-shirt began life as early as 500 AD, when utilitarian, t-shaped tunics were first developed to be worn as men’s undergarments. Fast forward a few thousand years, and it has become an essential feature of wardrobes all over the world, with well over two billion being sold every year.

With designs ranging from a plain white Primark tee that costs a couple of quid, to a £72,000 crocodile skin version released by French designer Hermès in 2013 (officially the most expensive t-shirt of all time), this ubiquitous undergarment has been transformed into a fashion statement in its own right. It has also come to be widely used by people as a medium for expression. Iconic t-shirts from the last few decades have made statements about important social and political issues encompassing everything from gender and identity to AIDS and climate change.

The t-shirt is the subject of a new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which documents how it has come to reflect societal shifts over the years – and how in turn it has helped to influence and invigorate these movements.

The exhibition begins with a timeline that offers a snapshot of the key developments and milestones in the t-shirt’s history, including the first inclusion of the word in the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary in 1920, and the invention of the multi-colour rotary screen printing machine in 1960 – which singlehandedly ushered in the era of cheap, mass produced t-shirts and was popularised by artists like Andy Warhol.

Despite the garment’s fascinating backstory, the museum was keen to make sure the exhibition didn’t solely focus on its history, but on its role as a mouthpiece as well. “For us it was about looking about what the t-shirt can do,” says curator and head of exhibitions, Dennis Nothdruft. “How does this very simple garment exist in all these ways, and why do people choose to say something with their t-shirt?”

Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for The Fashion and Textile Museum

Organised thematically by topics as broad as music, identity and fashion, the exhibition features over 100 t-shirts created by designers such as Malcolm Garrett, Jeremy Deller and Jamie Reid.

The t-shirt – or rather group of t-shirts – that sparked the initial idea for the exhibition was a collection of rare surviving pieces from the 1970s by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and her then boyfriend and manager of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren. The couple set up a shop called Let it Rock on the King’s Road in West London in 1971, and began designing and selling retro rock memorabilia and slogan t-shirts.

The collection of surviving t-shirts – which feature slogans such as “too fast to live, too young to die” – formed the basis of initial conversations about the exhibition three years ago. “Westwood and McLaren were very conscious about being agent provocateur,” says Nothdruft. “These were provocative t-shirts that definitely challenged people’s perceptions, and some of them are still quite shocking today.” Once the team behind the exhibition realised the scale and breadth of the subject matter, however, it quickly developed into something much bigger, Nothdruft adds.

Era-defining designs on display include band t-shirts such as the Rolling Stones’ icon Tongue and Lips logo by John Pasche, and acid house party tees branded with the smiley face emblem that became synonymous with UK rave culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The t-shirts are all hung on large scaffold structures that aim to give the exhibition an “industrial”, “temporary” feel, says exhibition designer Guida Ferrari, rather than looking too “museumy”. The structures adapt depending on the t-shirts’ content, adds Ferrari, taking the form of a giant catwalk for the fashion section, and creating the illusion of a sea of t-shirt wearing concertgoers in the music section.

Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for The Fashion and Textile Museum

It is the political t-shirts from the likes of Westwood and fashion designer Katherine Hamnett on display that remain the most powerful examples of expression, however. Westwood typically gives her fashion shows names like Plus 5degrees (the temperature that the world would become uninhabitable at), which she has said simultaneously serves the function of looking good on a t-shirt while also sending a message.

Hamnett’s simple, graphic style has also become synonymous with the protest t-shirt. She was the brains behind the brilliantly simple but effective black and white Choose Life t-shirt that George Michael appeared wearing in a Wham! video in 1984, and which has gone on to spawn countless homage versions. She has also remained very active since then, sending models down the catwalk in 2003 wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “No War, Blair Out” as a clear statement of her views on the war in Iraq, and designing a “Cancel Brexit” t-shirt in light of the EU referendum result in 2016.

Perhaps designs like Hamnett’s and Westwood’s seem even more impactful in light of the political and social turmoil that has dominated our TV screens and social media feeds over the last couple of years – and which has simultaneously helped to politicise the general public. “I think there’s an urgency and impetus to looking at something like the political t-shirt now that wasn’t there when we first started the exhibition,” says Nothdruft. “All of a sudden you have millions of women across the world coming together for events like the Women’s March – mobilising, marching and wearing slogans.”

What is certain is that the slogan t-shirt isn’t going away anytime soon, adds Nothdruft. “I think there’s a democracy to it,” he says. “The t-shirt’s basicness has the ability to transcend fashion, and become the perfect blank canvas to project what you want to say.”

T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion is on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 6 May 2018. Tickets cost £9.90 for adults, and £8.80 for concessions. For more information, head here.

Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for The Fashion and Textile Museum
Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for The Fashion and Textile Museum
Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for The Fashion and Textile Museum
Vivienne backstage protesting by Marta Lamovsek
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren ‘tits t-shirt’ by Marta Lamovsek
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greets fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, wearing a t-shirt with a nuclear missile protest message. 17th March, 1984. Press Association.
Keith Haring’s ‘Act Against AIDS ‘93’ from the series Not In Your Face. Photograph by Susan A. Barnett. Published in T: A Typology of T-Shirts. Copyright © 2014. All Rights Reserved.
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