As American actress Connie Britain reminded us at the Golden Globes ceremony back in January with her “Poverty Is Sexist” top, wearing our politics on our sleeve – or, rather, chest – is an instant debate starter. Worn and seen in the right spheres, these small, unspoken acts of dissent, provocation, satire and solidarity can make big waves. Little wonder then, that we’ve been diligently applying words to this most accessible item of clothing (named, incidentally, after the capital letter it resembles when laid out flat) for decades.
Feminist tees for the Tumblr age
In 2018, fourth-wave feminist internet snark is the gift that just keeps on giving. Statuses, tweets and memes are increasingly likely to appear on our tees, from the cleverly doctored Cyndi Lauper lyrics: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun(Damental Human Rights)”, to the rise of ironic misandry, with its many, merciless variations on drinking/bathing in “Male Tears”. Witches – out of the broom closet and flourishing in the digital realm – are also transforming their digital missives into woke wear, with indie crafters inviting us to “Hex The Patriarchy” – an imperative turned praxis last year when witches around the globe (including pop star Lana Del Rey) cast a mass binding spell against America’s pussy-grabber-in-chief, Trump.
If the political slogan tee is ubiquitous in 2018, it’s because injustice is equally so
Just The Same But Brand New: Recycled Slogans
Increasingly, the net is responsible for both new, 280-character-ready slogans, and the revival of retro originals, zingers culled from the placards, banners, ephemera and tees documented in yesteryear’s photos. Instagram, with its wealth of diligently tended archival accounts, is frequently responsible for this re-popularisation process. It was an image on the lesbian culture archive h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, for example, that prompted LA-based designer Rachel Berks to reproduce the now infamous, Cara Delevingne-approved “The Future is Female” tee, inspiring of a slew of response slogans (“The Future Is Queer/Genderfluid/Non-Binary”) and inadvertently igniting debates about artistic credits along the way after Berks failed to disclose the phrase’s radical, ‘70s lesbian-feminist origins. La Batarde, a collective of designers and artists raising money for the Irish organisation Abortion Support Network have also revived a ‘70s h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y gem, emblazoning their range of tees and sweatshirts with the cheer-worthy command: “Crush Phallic Imperialism”.
Woke wear: intersectional T-shirts
It’s not just phallic imperialism today’s artist-activists are out to dismantle, as Rudy Loewe’s excellent venn diagram tee – “Loud White Men/Opinions That Matter” – clearly states. QTPOC artists such as Loewe create slogan tees that offer up assured, biting and beautiful responses to white supremacy and structural inequalities such as racism, mysogynoir and classism, illustrating how these various oppressions so frequently imbricate.
Appropriation: marginalized phrases for the masses
Intersectional feminism may well be mainstream parlance now, neatly potted in the viral phrase: “My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit”, but while Etsy sellers have made a killing off the tee-ready phrase, the author of this viral rallying cry, Flavia Dzodan, is yet to see a cent. And as we witnessed last year, its not just individual bottom feeders that co-opt cultural work; the corporate mainstream is a repeat offender when it comes to monetising our phrases. Femme-identified peeps were amused and peeved in equal measure last year when corporate clothing brands such as H&M began shilling t-shirts emblazoned with declarations such as “Femme Forever”, glibly appropriating a complex, historical and deeply political phrase for profits.
Wear it loud: queer couture
LGBTQ communities are particular prolific when it comes to creating original, satirical resistance tees, as evidenced by the Wearing Gay History archive. Retro gems tend to run the gamut from PG wit (“Jesus Loves Drag”, “The Homo Depot”) and full-on Pride souvenir cheese (“Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian”) to outright subversion (Homocult’s gratifyingly horrific “Give Us Your Children…What We Can’t Fuck, We Eat”). Most familiar, perhaps, is Act Up’s famous pink triangle slogan “Silence = Death” (and Keith Haring’s comic strip take on the slogan), a bold, unforgettable response to the AIDS crisis of the 80s/90s. It’s a creative continuum that rolls on today, in designs that articulate our contemporary desires and struggles: anti-assimilation (“Not Gay As In Happy But Queer As In Fuck You”), identity politics (preferred pronoun tees, “Femme Supremacy”) and trans liberation (“Thank A Trans Woman For Pride”).
Binary-smashing and border-traversing
As the fight for queer liberation grows, so too does the campaign for free movement. LGBTQI asylum seekers know better than anyone how these two struggles overlap, facing a crushing gauntlet of home office bureaucracy, detention centre misery and chartered flight deportations. As xenophobia, homo/transphobia and nationalism surge in the west following the EU referendum outcome in Britain and Trump’s anti-immigrant ticket win in the US, activists and allies alike have adopted tees bearing one, loaded word: “Immigrant”.
For every “Make America Great Again” cap there’s a “Love Trumps Hate” tee, a “Fuck Your Wall” hoody. And while black communities across the States continue to resist state violence in its many, insidious forms, we’ll continue to see bold resistance designs such as “Flint Lives Matter” (in response to the Michigan water crisis) and “I Can’t Breathe” (in memoriam for Eric Garner) in the headlines. Sometimes, the best weapon in the face of hatred is humour, as evidenced in the LOL-worthy iterations of #punchanazi’s hashtag-turned-tee – the best of which couch this pursuit as a patriotic duty.
Eco justice now
Social justice movements are crucial, but as scientists and sloganeers have warned us for decades, long-term gains are a moot endeavour while we continue to ignore the very real and present danger of ecocide-via-climate change. Designers like Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hammnet have been broadcasting pro-peace, pro-environment and anti-war missives for decades, the former with a 2012 Climate Revolution campaign and “Save the Arctic” design, the latter via iconic black block lettering, from her infamous 1984 headline grabber “58% Don’t Want Pershing” (in response to missile use) and a 2003 anti-Iraq invasion design ‘Stop War, Blair Out’, to her recent Brexit protests, with “Second Referendum Now” and “Cancel Brexit”.
If the political slogan tee is ubiquitous in 2018, it’s because injustice is equally so. And as long as these power struggles persist, artists, designers and agents for change will continue to give us artful, wearable responses.
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