The Truth Behind T-shirt Activism

From power dressing to protest t-shirts, fashion has always been inherently influential in the social and political sphere. Particularly in the instance of t-shirt activism, which was popularised in the fashion industry by Katherine Hamnett who lobbied for ethical clothing production in the 1980s, the vast power of something as simple as a slogan tee has become evident (1).

However, as this form of activism has been amplified, it poses the question: is the commercialisation of crucial movements detrimental?

Slogan t-shirts have enabled consumers to exteriorise their belief systems, allowing activism on the most accessible level. Between the 1940s – 1970s, t-shirt activism was rampant as a widespread method for political engagement, utilised by The Civil Rights Movement, presidential candidates, The Black Panther Party and more (2). In the 1980s, Katherine Hamnett boldly turned up to a Downing Street cocktail party in a DIY t-shirt with the words, ‘58% don’t want perishing’ as rebuttal to the suggestion that US ballistic missiles should be stationed in the UK.

In more recent years, musicians such as Loyle Carner have taken to the stage with t-shirts emblazoned with a simple, ‘I hate Boris’ (a bit too polite if you ask me), making their political standpoint clear for their audience (1). Even something as seemingly simple as a pink triangle printed on a t-shirt, has the power to represent something as important as queer visibility as it acts as a reclamation of a discriminatory Nazi symbol. The value in political dressing and t-shirt activism is certainly not one that should be underestimated. However, whilst the intention is nothing short of empowering, the execution can often miss the mark.

In 2017, Dior took t-shirt activism to the catwalk, with a plain white tee taking centre stage garnered with the phrase, ‘We should all be feminists’ which was taken from the feminist manifesto of Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. While this may seem unproblematic, Dior made no effort to amplify the work of Adichie and instead charged customers $710 for an item that has a notoriously cheap manufacturing cost.

It was only until significant backlash, that the fashion house decided to donate a percentage of sales to Rihanna’s non-profit organisation, The Clara Lionel Foundation, which aims to fund education and emergency response programmes (3). An image of Rihanna wearing the t-shirt became viral (duh, its Rihanna) resulting in fast fashion houses reproducing the item to increase accessibility to the general public. While this seems unassuming, what we fail to acknowledge is that it is often dangerous to aestheticise belief systems to the extent to where they become trendy.

This is seen countless times in the fast fashion industry, with t-shirts printed with sweeping statements such as, ‘love your body’ and ‘the future if female’. Also, just as a disclaimer, I sit here writing this with my ‘I am a feminist t-shirt’ from ASOS within reach, aware of my blatant hypocrisy but hear me out.  Whilst the t-shirts are promoting messages that are intrinsically good, the ‘femvertising’ from these fast fashion companies seems to lack thought, with a cruel irony. For one, the vast majority of these t-shirts use manufacturing which operates on sweatshops, a practice that is exploitative and harmful to its majority female workers. This entire indiscretion is perhaps depictive of a huge issue in feminism currently; prioritising capitalism over intersectionality. The women who need feminism the most seem to be neglected (4).

A further issue in t-shirt activism, is the narrative that companies portray in order to soothe the consumer’s ego. Marketing is rife with the implication that buying a t-shirt epitomises true activist work. Whilst representing your beliefs through clothing can be impactful, it’s not to say that it can supplement productive work to support your causes. In order to support the movements that matter to us most, there must be open dialogue, action and petitioning in order to enact real change. With that being said, there is certainly merit to political dressing, it is just as important that the brand selling this clothing has genuine intentions which is more often found in small businesses.

Most crucially, we must hold ourselves accountable, ensuring that what is printed on our tees does not excuse us from continuing to strive for positive change- there is always work to be done.

With that being said, when we look at the true intention of politically motivated clothing, it certainly has an undeniable influence. It is a great way to amplify visibility of certain causes and can enable camaraderie across supporting members. However, there is certainly an insidious side to t-shirt activism that we as consumers can not fall victim to and most importantly, we must enact social change using our voices as well as the clothes on our backs.

Some additional resources:

References:

  1. the power of a protest tee [Internet]. I-d. 2019 [cited 4 February 2021]. Available from: https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/vb5y48/protest-tees-post-truth-truth-issue   

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