Twitter, T-Shirt Activism: Cult, Culture, Community but Is it Action?

“The humble t-shirt has had some major cultural and historical sway, across politics, art, fashion and technology,” as Dazed wrote this weekend, in light of the new exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, entitled, “T-shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion.” Dedicated to the power of the t-shirt, the exhibition looks to some of the biggest cultural shifts helped by the simple garment, including its role as a protest symbol, which feels particularly relevant in 2017, when every other runway collection tends to include at least one politically-motivated shirt.

Such activism has come in the form of Christian Dior’s $800 tees, which went down the runway in September 2016 and read, “We Should All be Feminists.” Thereafter, in February 2017, Prabal Gurung sent models out for his Fall/Winter 2017 finale in tees that read “The future is female,” “I am an immigrant,” “Our minds, our bodies, our power,” “Revolution has no borders,” “Stronger than fear,” “Nothing more, nothing less,” “Awake,” and more. And many a t-shirt could be found in between, on runways in New York, London, Milan, and Paris, as recently as this past season.

In other forms, protest garb has found a home on heads by way of the Pussyhat Project, an initiative started by screenwriter Krista Suh and artist and designer Jayna Zweiman, as a means of  protest against Donald "Pussy Grabber" Trump and in solidarity with the various women's rights marches that have taken place across the country this year. 

While politically-charged garments and accessories are certainly not a novel phenomenon, they have found an interesting home on the runway. As Kenzie Bryant wrote for Vanity Fair early this year, “The message tee’s presence on fall 2017 runways is a testament to how quickly things can change, and how the fashion industry’s pace puts it in a unique position to react and reflect the sentiment of its consumers.”  

Stylized pussyhats even found they way onto the runway. As noted by Vogue, "Angela Missoni ended her Fall 2017 show with models clad in Pussyhats, the hot pink symbols of protest and female solidarity that were created in honor of the Women’s March. Missoni’s variation on the hand-knit piece featured her family’s signature zig-zagging prints and bold stripes, but the pointed ears and bold rose color were unmistakable." 

These tees (and of course, the hats) have gone beyond the runway, popping up in no shortage of fashion month street style photos and on Instagram, of course. Many of Dior’s brand ambassadors, for instance, including mega-influencer Chiara Ferragni, were photographed in its slogan tees, suggesting that the brand was lenient with its t-shirt gifting.

And there is more to fashion's mounting activist streak than garments. Social media has played a seminal role, as well. Whether it be political endorsements or a move to publicly create distance between a brand, publication, or individual from a controversial figure or practice, for instance, Twitter has proven a useful tool for disseminating such messages, oftentimes without, having to do any more.

Yes, despite the existence of some truly well-meaning and acting individuals, the activism-centric movement within the fashion industry in recent seasons - and even the movement that is garment/accessory-centric but removed from the confines of the fashion industry - has, nonetheless, been an immensely complex one, that is, in many ways, lacking. There is certainly merit to the awareness-raising properties of t-shrits, beanies, and Twitter, and our ability to using our bodies – and our social media accounts – as walking billboards for our causes (not uncommonly the trendiest of the moment), this is is different than actually acting upon the ideas that we present vis-à-vis our tees ... or hats. 

Aside from seemingly serving as a sure-fire way to build community amongst like-minded individuals, how do most of these modern-day "protests" - those that comes by way of hats, tees, and tweets - compare to similar(ish) efforts and some of the more powerful slogans of the past?

Well, they are largely devoid of any sort of useful specificity. As Vogue’s Maya Singer so brilliantly stated this summer, “Much of the potency of Katharine Hamnett’s slogan tees came from their specificity. She wasn’t afraid to advocate policy — to wit, when she wore a tee that read 58% Don’t Want Pershing, referring to a proposed missile site in the U.K. — when she met then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.”

Much like how fashion's trendy tees lack any tangible teeth, social media tends to help put forth vague notions, as opposed to tangible tactics; this is, thereby, more conducive to gaining followers than gaining steam for a collective movement. Not unlike how a Public School t-shirt or hat that reads "Make America New York" does little to mobilize anything, a publication or brand taking a stand against sexual harassment without a firm commitment is small change. 

A media conglomerate distancing itself from Terry Richardson, for instance, via a statement – a solid seven years after the first handful of models spoke out about the photographer's alleged practices of sexual harassment – rings a bit hollow. 

Since, the proliferation of such social media messages and merch, so to speak, rarely comes with specific calls of action, it stands to suggest that the consumption of oft-pricey emblazoned t-shirts is, on its own, an actual form of protest, much like the act of tweeting without the implementation of any larger action. “We can be guilty of posting something [online] and feeling like we’ve done our deed,” as Prabal Gurung told the Washington Post last week.

With that in mind, this t-shirt activism, which seems to fall so squarely in line with the rest of the Instagram generation mentality, is simply inadequate. Simple fashion statements will not change the world. The motivations behind them, however, if put into action, could.