Like jeans and the little black dress, the T-shirt is a fashion item that has gone beyond fashion. But trends in T-shirts do change, and right now, it’s all about the message. Witness Katie Price last week in a T-shirt that read: “Save a horse, ride a cowboy.” One can only hazard a guess at what Peter Andre might have got from that.
Of course, the T-shirt has long been a means of telling the world what we care about. The first slogan T-shirts were sold by Mr Freedom in the 60s, a shop on London’s Kings Road set up by Tommy Roberts and Trevor Myles. Its Disney designs, which included images of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, were quickly snapped up. In the 70s, shock tactics prevailed: Vivienne Westwood and her partner Malcolm McLaren made political T-shirts to sell in their shop, SEX, and the most popular design featured a swastika and an inverted crucifix under the word “Destroy”. McLaren called it “the ultimate punk-rock T-shirt”. “Westwood made the aesthetic available to a lot of people in the 70s,” says Sonnet Stanfill, fashion curator of the V&A. “The DIY ethos meant that many people made them at home.”
In the 80s, slogan T-shirts reached saturation point because of one woman: Katharine Hamnett. Dressed in a “58% Don’t Want Pershing” T-shirt, she was photographed shaking hands with the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher at a Downing Street reception for London fashion week designers in 1984. (The slogan referred to public opposition to the basing of US Pershing missiles in the UK at the tail end of the cold war.)
Hamnett’s designs were copied all over the world. Wham! wore a T-shirt with the slogan “Number One” – and later “Choose Life”; Frankie Goes to Hollywood had “Frankie Says Relax”. Hamnett’s T-shirts became cultural signposts to the times we lived in.
“I wanted to put a really large message on T-shirts that could be read from 20 or 30ft away,” she says now. “Slogans work on so many different levels; they’re almost subliminal. They’re also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They’re tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself.”
Her Pershing T-shirt was “a bit of a practical joke, really. I’d been invited to No 10 and didn’t want to go, but I realised it was a photo opportunity and I should grab it. That T-shirt gave me a voice.”
The slogan’s most recent catwalk incarnation came via Henry Holland. In 2006, he produced a series of tongue-in-cheek T-shirts aimed at the fashion industry: “Do Me Daily Christopher Bailey”, “Cause Me Pain Hedi Slimane” and “Get Your Freak On Giles Deacon”. They were modelled by his friend Agyness Deyn and worn by fellow designers Gareth Pugh and Deacon when they took their catwalk bows. High-street stores from Topshop to New Look rushed to produce copy-cat versions.
Whereas Hamnett’s had been in black and white, Holland’s were in acid brights – “in your face, bright, quite brash, loud and attention-seeking”, as he put it. “Hamnett’s T-shirts were very much about an ethical message or a political message. Mine are much more a bit of fun, a bit tongue-in-cheek and a way for the fashion industry to have a laugh at itself.”
So if you plan to get something off your chest, what’s the best way to go about it? The last word must surely go to Hamnett. “A successful T-shirt has to make you think but then, crucially, you have to act,” she says. “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”.
From its humble counter-culture origins to its current status as a high-street fashion staple, the slogan T-shirt has a noble history, writes Emma Sibbles.