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

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

LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 8: General take ins of the show space before the T-Shirt Cult Culture Subversion at The Approach and Textile Museum on February 8, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Moulds for The Fashion and Textile Museum)

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

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

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

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

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

LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 8: Non-exclusive views of the show space before the T-Shirt Cult Culture Overthrow at The Fashion and Textile Museum on February 8, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Aspects for The Fashion and Textile Museum)

Organised thematically by topics as broad as music, oneness and fashion, the exhibition features over 200 t-shirts created by devisers such as Malcolm Garrett, Jeremy Deller and Jamie Reid.

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

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

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

The t-shirts are all waited on large scaffold structures that aim to give the exhibition an “industrial”, “stopgap” feel, says exhibition designer Guida Ferrari, rather than looking to “museumy”. The configurations adapt depending on their content of the t-shirts, adds Ferrari, prepossessing the form of a giant catwalk for the fashion section, and creating the illusion of a sea of t-shirt deterioration concertgoers in the music section.

LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 8: Inexact views of the show space before the T-Shirt Cult Culture Destruction at The Fashion and Textile Museum on February 8, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Idols for The Fashion and Textile Museum)

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

Hamnett’s simple, photographic style has also become synonymous with the protest t-shirt. She was the thoughts behind the brilliantly simple but effective black and white Choose Vivacity t-shirt that George Michael appeared wearing in a Wham! video in 1984, which has also expired on to spawn countless homage versions. She has also remained very on the move since then, sending models down the catwalk in 2003 drain t-shirts emblazoned with “No War, Blair” as a clear statement of her views on the war in Iraq.

Maybe designs like Hamnett’s and Westwood’s seem even more impactful in torch of the political and social turmoil that has dominated our TV screens and social media provenders over the last couple of years – and which has simultaneously helped to politicise the across the board public. “I think there’s an urgency and impetus to looking at something analogous to the political t-shirt now that wasn’t there when we first started the demonstration,” says Nothdruft. “All of sudden you have millions of women across the planet for events like the Women’s March, mobilising, marching and wearing rallying cries.”

What is certain is that the slogan t-shirt isn’t going away anytime in a minute, Nothduft adds. “I think there’s a democracy to it,” he says. “The t-shirt’s basicness has the genius to transcend fashion, and becomes the perfect blank canvas to project what you pine for to say.”


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

LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 8: Normal views of the show space before the T-Shirt Cult Culture Overthrow at The Fashion and Textile Museum on February 8, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images for The Make and Textile Museum)LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 8: General considers of the show space before the T-Shirt Cult Culture Subversion at The Model and Textile Museum on February 8, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Tropes for The Fashion and Textile Museum)LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 8: Popular views of the show space before the T-Shirt Cult Culture Overthrow at The Fashion and Textile Museum on February 8, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Spitting images for The Fashion and Textile Museum)

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher addresses fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, wearing a t-shirt with a atomic missile protest message, at 10 Downing Street, where she entertained a reception for British Fashion Week designers.

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