The Block

Inspiration — 2 months ago

14 of The Most Iconic Slogan Tees

The T-shirt has a long history with words. From ironic slogan T-shirts, to quote T-shirts, to political protest T-shirts, to those that become cultural milestones (in some cases accidentally), if there’s one thing that every iteration of the slogan tee goes to show, it’s that there are few things the humble T-shirt can’t help you say. 

 

To trace the history and impact of the slogan T-shirt, we’ve assembled our own collection of some of its best-known examples and underrated classics. By no means a definitive list, read on for a non-chronological selection that spans Ireland’s Repeal movement, Britney Spears’ early 2000s aesthetic, Vivienne Westwood’s 1970’s shop, and Virgil Abloh. 

 

Looking for more wordplay? Check out our list of 2019’s most exciting typographers.

Share
Everpress 50/50 Lookbook, photographed by Angela Stephenson

D.A.R.E to Keep Kids Off Drugs

This accidentally-iconic T-shirt started life as merchandise for an L.A. drugs awareness initiative in 1983 – the D.A.R.E stands for ‘Drug Abuse Resistance Education’. Though the scheme had mixed success, costing somewhere between $200 million and $2 billion to run by the early 2000s despite multiple studies claiming it had “absolutely no measurable effect on drug use,” the tees have been an ironic favourite since the ‘90s. D.A.R.E is still running today, with a new department ‘Keepin’ It R.E.A.L (Refuse, Explain, Avoid, and Leave)’, and, we hope, new tees on the horizon too. 

D.A.R.E to Keep Kids Off Drugs Campaign Imagery

Why Be Racist, Sexist, Homophobic or Transphobic When You Can Just Be Quiet

Quoting a 2015 tweet by fellow teen Brandon Male, then-18 year old Kayla Robinson’s “Why Be Racist, Sexist, Homophobic or Transphobic When You Can Just Be Quiet” tees blew up after Frank Ocean wore one for his Panorama Music Festival set in August 2017. Tapping into a wider trend for wearing words, Robinson’s brand Green Box Shop went on to produce a series of political shirts, with slogans including “Black Lives Matter” and “America Was Never Great.”

DESTROY

Tommy Roberts’ 430 King’s Road shop, Mr Freedom, was, by some accounts, the birthplace of the slogan T-shirt, with Roberts’ pop art tees among some of its very earliest iterations. But it was the shop’s next owners, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, who would go on to make fashion history with their DIY T-shirts. The pair took over the shop in 1971, and by 1974 had renamed it SEX, selling (indeed creating) punk fashion including their now-infamous anti-fascist “DESTROY” piece. 

Vivienne Westwood ‘Destroy’ T-shirt © V&A Museum

New York Herald Tribune

The T-shirt owes a lot to the big screen. Though tees had been around since the early 1900’s, it was Marlon Brando and James Dean sporting them in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) respectively, that really helped put T-shirts on the map. Jean Seaberg’s New York Herald Tribune T-shirt in 1960’s Breathless had a similar effect for slogan tees too.

Still from Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless

58% Don’t want pershing

Undoubtedly one of the most famous protest T-shirts of all time, Hamnett told the Guardian last year that she, “knocked up that T-shirt a couple of hours before” an event at Downing Street to celebrate London Fashion Week in 1984. Pershing was in direct reference to America’s controversial deployment of its Pershing II guided missile in West Germany, but in a broader sense the T-shirt was a clear statement of anti-Thatcher sentiment.

Katherine Hamnett Meeting Margaret Thatcher in her ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ T-shirt

I Am The American Dream

Between Lindsay Lohan’s “Skinny Bitch,” Paris Hilton’s “That’s Hot,” and Britney Spears’ many (including “Dump Him,” “I’m A Virgin, But This Is An Old T-shirt,” and “I Have The Golden Ticket,”) the early noughties were a goldmine for slogan T-shirts. Love the tees or hate them, the fact that their photographs are circulated as memes speaks to their enduring appeal.

Britney Spears in her ‘I AM THE AMERICAN DREAM’ T-shirt

SODOM TODAY GOMORRAH THE WORLD

T-shirts have long been a part of the campaign for queer rights; like placards, they’re an easy, immediate way for activists and protesters to get their message across at marches and demonstrations. Here, scholar, activist and civil servant Alan Bray is pictured in one at a 1979 Gay Pride Rally in London, while the later Silence = Death T-shirts would become synonymous with the Act Up Movement of the late ’80s and onwards.

Elvis Shot JFK

A 24 hour window into life in a Parisian banlieue, Mathieu Kassovitz’s seminal La Haine (1995) captured the anger of disenfranchised young men existing in a society stratified by race and class. One of the film’s most striking aspects is its protagonists’ fixation with American pop culture – the streetwear wardrobe, rap soundtrack, constant Scorsese references, and Vincent Cassel’s Taxi Driver impression – as encapsulated by this T-shirt worn by Darty (nickname: Walmart.)

Still From Mathieu Kassovitz’s film La Haine

Get Your Freak On Giles Deacon

Following in the footsteps of Katherine Hamnett, Henry Holland’s 2007 line of T-shirts helped introduce the possibilities of the slogan tee to a new generation. The designer used cheeky messages that referenced his friends (“Uhu Gareth Pugh”) and industry titans (“Do Me Daily Christopher Bailey”), to create a line of what he called, “’fashion groupie’ T-shirts –  they were my way of showing adoration for these designers I wanted to work alongside.”

Selection of Henry Holland’s slogan T-shirts, via Medium

Repeal

A familiar sight in Ireland and abroad in the lead up to last year’s repeal referendum, this series of T-shirts and jumpers helped raise awareness and galvanise support for Ireland’s pro-choice campaign. Launched in July 2016 by Anna Cosgrave as, “an outerwear project to give a voice to a hidden problem,” over 15,000 of the jumpers were sold, and figures as varied as Vivienne Westwood and Bernie Sanders were spotted in them too. 

Probably The Best Designer in the World

Martine Rose has been an ‘under the radar,’ or ‘insider’s’ designer for over a decade, and only now is she reaching her rightful, more mainstream, status as one of London’s most essential designers. Still, if this 2013 T-shirt is anything to go by, she’s always known her worth. T-shirts are a cornerstone of Rose’ brand, and slogan or message T-shirts have been a key component of the streetwear sensibility which she helped popularise; this slogan has become Rose’ USP.

Martine Rose 2013 ‘Probably The Best Designer in the World’ T-shirt

Models Suck

For her minor part in Spike Lee’s underrated 1996 film Girl 6, Naomi Campbell donned this tumblr-friendly “Models Suck” T-shirt. Also photographed on the cult ‘90s photographer Davide Sorrenti, it recently joined the ranks of IDEA Books’ slogan T-shirts, alongside their  “Winona,” “I Am A DJ,” and “Intern” classics. Though it’s a great T-shirt in its own right, it has to be said it’s most iconic on Naomi. 

Still From Spike Lee’s film Girl 6

ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE

In her still-relevant 1970s series “Truisms” artist Jenny Holzer explored the subversive power of words, printing over 300 statements of “truth” (or cliche) onto broadsheets, leaflets, and the sides of Manhattan buildings. This text-based approach was echoed about four decades later in the work of Off-White founder Abloh, who’s made the relationship between words and objects an ongoing theme in his designs. There was a brilliant synchronicity, then, in the pair teaming up, first for Abloh’s 2017 collection, and second to help raise money for Planned Parenthood with this spin on Holzer’s ‘Abuse Of Power Comes As No Surprise’.

Jenny Holzer x Virgil Abloh T-shirt for Planned Parenthood, photographed by Allen Orr

Shanzhai_lyric

Of course, not all slogan T-shirts can be iconic in the sense that they’re good, but sometimes misspellings, a meaning that doesn’t quite land, or a muddled sentiment, can result in a tee that’s good because it’s so bad. Though not strictly a T-shirt, we couldn’t skip this account cataloguing the weird and wonderful world of ‘wrong’ slogan T-shirts. Run by Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky, who are based in Kowloon, Hong Kong, the page’s gems include “Freedon” “He Offered Her The World She Say She Have Her Own” and “Scent To Bed.”

Source: Shanzai Lyric (@shanzhai_lyric)

Read More: 20 T-shirt Brands You Should Know in 2019