“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 on 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.
While t-shirts that bear a message 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.”
These tees 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 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 and Twitter, using our bodies – and our social media accounts – as walking billboards for our causes (not uncommonly the trendiest of the moment) is different than actually acting upon the ideas that we present vis-à-vis our tees.
Aside from seemingly serving as a sure-fire way to build up our follower counts, what most of these modern-day tees and tweets have in common in comparison to some of the more powerful slogans of the past? They are 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 t-shirt 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 makes 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 falls so squarely in line with the rest of the Instagram generation mentality, simply is inadequate, as is the tweeting of anti-sexual harassment and assault-related messaging without acknowledging – and working to actually change (not unlike how New York Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, with the help of the Model Alliance, announced the introduction of legislation that, if passed, will provide models with protections against sexual and other forms of harassment while on the job) – the fact that fashion consistently undervalues and victimizes women, regardless of whether we tweet about it or not.