The Political T-shirt Meets its Match in Big Fashion
The political t-shirt is back and badder than ever and we’ve seen more than a few political t-shirts sporting powerful slogans lately. From humorous attempts to poke fun at politicians to more serious and radical slogans the protest t-shirt is clearly back in fashion “bigly.” The roots of the protest shirt aren’t hard to trace, and the modern protest shirt owes a great deal to a well known British fashion designer called Katharine Hamnett. Hamnett’s protest t-shirts first came to prominence in the early 1980s and from there, spawned one of the first iconic, social-viral movements in fashion. Copied, replicated and reproduced ad infinitum, Hamnett’s signature styling and powerful messages on the front of t-shirts have been worn by every generation from the 1980s to today’s the hipsters of youth culture and it seems to show no signs of stopping. But where did the protest t-shirt first find its feet and how did it come of age under this talented graduate of St. Martin’s College in London? After all, we’ve seen slogans on t-shirts before this, from beer commercials to Disney characters to political statements. But what makes Katharine Hamnett’s t-shirts so special? Why these protest t-shirts n particular?
The answer to this massive appeal is simple: A stripped down, ultra-minimalist design, a no-art approach to a message which is clean, uncluttered by ornamentation and written in Helvetica, the font most commonly seen of freeway signs in Europe. Add to this Hamnett’s own ideas about ownership—she encouraged others to rip the shirt off and add their own slogans to the design format—which created something of a viral explosion of protest fashion, both for and against causes—rapidly becoming the go-to fashion statement of the 1980s, and easily one of the most memorable aspects of that decade.
As “most memorables” go, the most memorable Katharine Hamnett designed T-shirt was probably the one’s George Michael and Andrew Ridgely wore in the now legendary Wham! music video “Wake me up before you Go-go.” In it the group is seen sporting t-shirts emblazoned with her famous and powerful slogan, “Choose Life” which was a Buddhist mantra she had adopted. The message took up the entire front of the t-shirt and, as Hamnett herself said, “I wanted to put a really large message on T-shirts that could be read from 20 or 30 feet away.” Hamnett recognized two really important things about the t-shirt: the first was that it was a platform to broadcast messages which were important to the wearer and, secondly, that this platform could also be a powerful political and social billboard and not a mere whisper. Her memorable “Choose Life” shirts worn by members of both Wham! and Queen set the tone for the decade and others copied suite with Wham! adding a “Number 1” to their closet.
The plain-ness of these political t-shirts offered no distraction from the message and also made them exceptionally easy to copy, one thing that designer Hamnett was trying to do. By 1984 Paul Morley of ZTT records had adopted the bold Helvetica capitals an full frontal print to advertise ZTT Records new signing, British band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, with a spate of “Frankie Says…” t-shirts, the most famous of all beings, “Frankie Says Relax.” As Morley had it, he was persuaded by Hamnett saying she wanted the t-shirts ripped off. It was the real-world embodiment of the old punk Do-It-You-Damn-Self ethos and it worked, staggeringly well. What followed was a saturation of political t-shirts, from “Peace” to “Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now” to “Wear a condom” the political t-shirt had become fashion’s darling and Hamnett’s iconic, no-frills design had become an instant classic. So overwhelmingly popular were these plain writ slogans that they even incurred a bit of anti “Choose Life” ironic backlash from writers like Irvine Welsh in his iconic novel Trainspotting, which rejected the “Choose Life” ethos from the perspective of working class Scottish heroin addicts in the 1990s.
There is no disputing that 1980s gave rise to the voice of the people, which could be seen in ‘zines, on t-shirts and in almost any sphere where the personal and the political collided. Looking back from our new millennium, it seems the political t-shirt is making a real comeback with slogans like Black Lives Matter, Make America Great Again, #MeToo and a host of other equally political and attention-worthy causes. However you slice it, the t-shirt remains the premier vehicle for drawing attention to a cause you care about and Spectra’s range of ring-spun cotton and bi-blend t-shirts ensures that you can keep exercising your freedom of speech on the finest cotton threads available in North America. No matter what cause you celebrate, SpectraUSA has, literally, got your back.