T-shirt power: the London exhibition exploring the subversive sway of the slogan tee

Left image, Katharine Hamnett meets Margaret Thatcher, right image 'Save the World' T'shirt
Left, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greets fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, wearing a T-shirt with a nuclear missile protest message, 17 March, 1984. Right, ‘Save The World’ T-shirt, by Katharine Hamnett
(Image credit: courtesy of Press Association.)

‘The shape of a T-shirt is so simple and beautiful,’ says Vivienne Westwood in her 2014 autobiography. ‘You are aware of the cloth, of the body, but also of an image: it is a canvas’. A new exhibition, T-Shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion, at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, celebrates the socio-political power of this universal garment, one used as a visual tool for conveying cultural statements and protestations.

Westwood and her then partner Malcolm McLaren gained prominence in the late Sixties for their creation of DIY T-shirts, embellished with glitter glue, chains, provocative images and typography. Be it a black T-shirt bearing the word ‘Rock’ spelt in chicken bones, a white tee with two cowboys in hats, boots and naked from the waist down, or another style with studs spelling ‘Venus’, the duo used Letterism as a powerful tool to convey their anti-establishment, punk outlook.

Display at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London

(Image credit: press)

‘T-shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion’ is on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London

‘T-shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion’, features a selection of Westwood’s T-shirt designs, from the coveted archive styles sold from her Kings Road boutique in Chelsea, to more modern ‘Climate Revolution’ iterations which convey her environmentalist outlook today. The exhibition also presents an expansive range of T-shirts by other creatives, which hang from colourful mannequins or are presented on graphic metal plinths. Look out for pro-recycling slogan designs by Henry Holland, squiggle pop art Aids awareness prints by Keith Haring, and artist Jeremy Deller’s slogan T-shirts, bearing tabloid headlines, like ‘My Drug Shame’ and ‘My Booze Hell.’

No exhibition on the political power of the T-shirt would be complete without the creative output of Katharine Hamnett. The British designer has been making slogan T-shirts since the Eighties. Her first ‘Choose Life’ slogan style was sported by George Michael on Top of the Pops, and last September the designer released a ‘Cancel Brexit’ tee. She also famously wore a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ to meet with Margaret Thatcher in 1984, in response to the public’s reaction to US nuclear missiles being moved to UK soil.

Percentages have also been at the forefront of contemporary British politics, with the close European Referendum being totalled at 51.89 per cent voting to leave the EU. Hamnett has just launched her ‘Second Referendum Now’ T-shirt in protest. ‘In a democracy people have their right to change their mind,’ she says. ‘They were given incorrect figures and information regarding the impact of leaving the European Union. What’s so sad is that things which were going on in the Eighties are as relevant now as they were then. We’re at the tipping point and it’s time to act. ‘It’s not just about buying a t-shirt, you have to follow up on your beliefs.’

Left image, 'Breasts' T-shirt, Right image, 'Fetish' T-shirt

Left, ‘Breasts’ T-Shirt,  designed and screen printed by John Dove and Molly White, for Morley, 1969. Original photography in collaboration with James Wedge. Right, Leopard skin ‘Fetish’ T-shirt, designed and screen printed by John Dove and Molly White, 1973. 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Paul Stolper Gallery)

Left image, 'My Drug Shame' T-shirt, Right image 'My Booze Hell' T-shirt

Left, ‘My Drug Shame’, Limited Edition T-shirt. Right, ‘My Booze Hell’ Limited Edition T-shirt, by Jeremy Deller, 2016. 

(Image credit: Graham Pearson)

Vivienne Westwood portrait in 'Climate Revolution' T-shirt

Vivienne Westwood wears a ‘Climate Revolution’ T-shirt backstage.

(Image credit: Marta Lamovsek)

Left image, 'Don't Be a Waster' T-shirt, Right image, 'Single Use Plastic is Never Fantastic' T-shirt

Left, ‘Don’t Be A Waster #SwapForGood’ T-shirt. Right, ‘Single Use Plastic is Never Fantastic #SwapForGood’ T-shirt, by Brita x Henry Holland

(Image credit: Brita x Henry Holland)


’T-shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion’ is on view until 6 May. For more information, visit the Fashion and Textile Museum website