Fashion Archives - The History Of The Slogan T- Shirt
Words by Millen Brown-Ewens
The humble t-shirt may just be the fashion world’s greatest social leveller. Unisex, effortless, and (for the most part) dirt cheap, you’d be lucky to find a soul on earth that didn’t have one of these crumpled at the back of their drawers. Over the course of a century, the status of this wardrobe staple has altered considerably, evolving from unassertive layer to disruptive canvas, proving itself to be a powerful conduit for social and political discourse time and time again.
As the first uniform of the post-industrial working class, the t-shirt is inherently political. Although similar styles, such as the tunic, can be traced back thousands of years, the iteration of the T-shirt that we would recognise today – made from lightweight cotton or jersey – was initially developed by the US Navy as a practical undergarment worn beneath button down union suits. After recognising that in warmer weather, workers were unbuttoning the top and tucking it into the trousers, Cooper Underwear Company began marketing the ‘bachelor undershirts’ without buttons and in 1913 they became standard issue for navy uniform.
One of the earliest examples of the t-shirt being embellished with text, once again came from warfare forces in the United States. In the 1940s, the military were donning graphic tees that showcased their branch logos as a means to aggrandize nationalist ideals during WW2 and encourage support for war during an otherwise tumultuous era. The graphic tee was also popular in politics with presidential candidates such as Thomas E Dewey adopting the slogan ‘Dew it with Dewy’ during his campaign in 1948.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the t-shirt broke into everyday wear, popularised by the appearance of rugged heartthrobs James Dean and Marlon Brando on silver screens in figure gripping ensembles. But it had a way to go to realise it’s full potential.
Enter Tommy Roberts. Across the pond, the t-shirt hadn’t really caught on yet and despite what Pinterest may feed you, graphic tees were not considered sartorially acceptable in the UK until the mid 60s. In 1963, fashion designer Tommy Roberts opened Kleptomania on Carnaby Street, a quirky store selling non-wearable collectables such as art, erotica, and vintage photographs. The popularity of his knick-knacks was palpable and suggestive of an unlocked appetite for clothing that echoed the free love and pop culture movements of the Swinging Sixties.
Enlisting the help of his friend and designer Roger Lunn, the pair rebranded the Soho shop as clothing label Mr Freedom, releasing collections of zany slogan and motif tees featuring phrases such as ‘KISS ME’, ‘LOVE CITY’ and ‘HANDLE WITH CARE’ as well as screen printed photographs and union jacks. The new store quickly accrued an impressive celebrity following including the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Who, Elton John and Jimi Hendrix. When Mick Jagger was photographed wearing a tee from their zodiac range, sales skyrocketed. Leaning into the kitschy counterculture and pop art of the era, Roberts was eventually granted an exclusive license from Disney to create t-shirts using their cartoon characters which marked a turning point in their notoriety and launched a style that we still see today.
By the end of the decade, slogan tees had gathered immense momentum in London and early adopters such as Barbara Hulanicki – founder of iconic department store Biba – had come to recognise the item as a fixture in British fashion. Tees featuring the brands notable Art Nouveau typography became their bread and butter, a reliable sale when the tide of trends was susceptible to change.
And change it did. Ever the provocateur and attuned to the politics of style, Vivienne Westwood, the late designer, activist, and architect of punk had been keeping a close eye on graphic tees emblazoned with anti-war sentiments and fists of solidarity that were popular among American students during the Vietnam War. By 1973, The New York Times had dubbed the t-shirt as “the medium for the message” and this didn’t pass Westwood by. The t-shirt, in its sliced, singed and safety-pinned gloriousness was the perfect punk canvas. Sold at her iconic boutique SEX on the Kings Road were tops printed with contentious imagery from swastikas and bare breasts to expressions like ‘Destroy’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK’.
As I’m certain Westwood would have agreed, never had the maxim ‘say it with your chest’ had more weight than during Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year term as Prime Minister in Britain. A hangover from the trailblazing punk attitude of the previous decade, designer Katherine Hamnett also recognised the subversive potential of the plain white tee at a time of economic, social, and political unrest. In 1984, when Thatcher hosted a reception for London Fashion Week designers at Downing Street, Hamnett greeted the Iron Lady wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ referring to public opposition to the PM granting the US permission to station nuclear missiles on British soil. However, the most famous of Hamnett’s designs was a top with the simple phrase ‘CHOOSE LIFE’, declaring an opposition to war, death and destruction in discernible block letters.
It would be some time before the slogan tee broke away from the band merchandise and brash advertising billboard it had become associated with in the 80s and 90s. But boy was it good when it did. In the wake of her break-up with Justin Timberlake in 2002, which had been the subject of intense media scrutiny, pop sensation Britney Spears stepped out on the streets of London, wearing a baby blue Juicy Couture t-shirt with the words ‘Dump him’ across the front. An unabashed and direct assertion made to the press without even having to open her mouth. Paris Hilton’s much memed ‘Stop Being Desperate’ caused a similar stir in 2005. The clapback tee was the avant-pop costume, a means of harnessing the lens of the paparazzi with acute self-awareness, sarcasm, and humour.
Written by Millen Brown-Ewens