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For over 40 years, March 8th has officially been International Women’s Day, however, the past few years have signaled a shift in how women’s rights and how we approach them and everyday there’s an opportunity to fight against the issues afflicting women across the globe. From the Women’s March in 2017, which was attended by over 6 million people worldwide, to the #MeToo and TimesUp movements of recent months (not to mention greater awareness around such key topics as period poverty and domestic violence) women’s issues are getting more attention than ever. Rightfully so.
In parallel and as a response to this, fashion has taken on the feminist message in its most literal form. In 2014 Chanel models led a, albeit controversial, feminist march down a catwalk, and in 2017 Maria Grazia Chiuri’s first collection for Dior included T-shirts with the “We Should All Be Feminists” message from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2012 TED talk of the same name.
In fact, wearing sloganT-shirts has become a vital way to get across important women’s rights messages, and not just on the catwalk. In 2013, Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas wore a No More Page Three T-shirt to make a point about the Sun’s continued publication of naked women.
So what is it about the slogan or protest T-shirt that’s become integral to giving a platform to women’s rights? I spoke to Dennis Nothdruft, head of exhibitions at the Fashion and Textile Museum, which is currently running ‘T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion’, who not only gave me a brief history of the protest T-shirt, but also why they’re so impactful.
“Plain white T-shirts were originally co-opted by the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando who wore them as outerwear [they used to only be worn under shirts so this was a subversive thing to do]. But it was in the ’60s where T-shirts became political. Young people were able to screenprint slogans and the T-shirt became a billboard to protest. Then of course people like Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren came along in the ’70s and used T-shirts to shock and offend people. After that it was Katharine Hamnett of the early ‘80s with her bold slogans that championed causes such as Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.”
However, when it comes to why the protest T-shirt is so impactful, Nothdruft puts it incredibly succinctly: “Their strength is their ubiquity. We advertise how we want to be perceived. And a T-shirt allows you to do that without being confrontational.”
I decided to speak to the women who are currently creating and wearing protest T-shirts, what it means to them, as well talking about the women’s rights issues that matter to them right now. From the iconic Katharine Hamnett to Tennessee Thomas, who runs the Deep End Club, these five women have something to say both on, and off, a jersey crew neck…
“There’s no better placard than the human body. Yes, it’s become fashionable to care, or at least look as if you care, but T-shirts will always be powerful. Currently, I’m very proud of our Choose Love T-shirt that we sell on ASOS, which has been helping raise money for refugees. There’s no point in just wearing a T-shirt because it’s trendy. You have do follow it up with action. I find the whole #MeToo movement incredibly narcissistic. You know, why aren’t we talking about making childcare tax deductible? Why aren’t we protesting against slave labour? We as women want change and to enact change we have to write to our MPs, we have to follow it up and get the money that’s floating around–we have an absolute right to claim that.”
–Katharine Hamnett, fashion designer, katharinehamnett.com
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“Wearing a T-shirt with a political slogan is like wearing your heart on your sleeve, it is a way for people to show solidarity to a cause without being confrontational.”
–Bella Freud, designer, bellafreud.com
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“The T-shirt is a way to represent your feelings and ideals! And a great way to start conversations. Our clothes [from the Deep End Club] have a way of expressing to the outside world who we are and what we are about. What we choose to wear says a lot about how we feel about the world! My favourite T-shirt right now, is the Deep End Club multi-slogan tee for when one slogan just won’t cut it! We are faced with such an overwhelming amount of issues right now, so I needed a shirt that said something about as many of them as possible!”
–Tennessee Thomas, founder of The Deep End Club, thedeependclub.com
“My favourite, classic protest tees include the slogans “Women’s rights are human rights”, “Women need more sleep than men because fighting the patriarchy is exhausting” and, the classic, “This p***y grabs back. Fashion is an expression, so what better than to use it for a great change and to fight injustice? Life for women hasn’t been easy and it is still a turbulent time to be a woman but International Women’s Day is a great reminder that without women, the world would not exist! For me right now, I’m after respect, equal pay, and just equal everything.”
–Portia Ferrari, model, makeup artist and journalist
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“I believe the T-shirt is one of the most iconic inventions in fashion history. I’m drawn to the fact that it attaches a message to the body of a person or group of individuals and is stitched to his or her identity—simple, affective yet extremely powerful. What’s even more important is that is can be timeless, a good slogan t-shirt can be used time and time again. However there is always the danger that the the trend or hype would have greater importance than the actual message itself, I guess this is a general risk that designers take in fashion. As a designer, I think of myself as a storyteller. When we initially decided to create a protest t-shirt for the Neo-Suffragette collection, being influenced by the events in Poland and the US, our main goal was to picture the solidarity of women and the link between contemporary womens’ struggles and the history of battles women have had to endure in the past. That’s why we asked Dorota Pawlicka,an artist known from illustrative portraits of the first- and second-wave feminism, to prepare the pictorial history of womens’ marches: suffragettes’ demonstrations, Dutch feminists’ protests, March on Washington and Polish Black Protest. Together, we went through visual archives and selected iconic images of several women demonstrations. This is how we made the T-shirt—not with one slogan but 15 smaller slogans taken from actual protest sign posts.”
–Monika Kędziora, Acephala designer