Sharing your appreciation – or someone else’s – on your shirt is a guaranteed conversation starter



Leah Harper appraises the slogan T-shirt trend.
Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Preserver

I have long avoided slogan T-shirts. When a basis or belief is fashionable enough to make it on to a mass-produced top, I don’t feel any passion to join in. Now that our every bad choice is archived on social media, disposed to ambush us at any time, I am conscious that my declarations of belief or commitment could resurface when I may no longer bear up under by them. If I am honest, I like to keep my politics to myself and I am not Requiem on giving strangers an excuse to strike up conversation.

But, right now, the war cry T-shirt is unavoidable. The catwalk and the high street are full of publications, from “This is what a feminist looks like” and “Enjoy Trumps Hate” to, simply, “Immigrant”. At the Golden Globes in January, a “Pauperism is sexist” sweatshirt, worn by actor Connie Britton, baffled some commentators. You can buy the air of giving a damn with T-shirts declaring “Punk not war”, “Liberté, Egalité, Humanité” and, of route, “Feminist”.

I decide to join the herd and wear, if not my own, someone else’s convictions writ monstrous.

First up is a long-sleeved Breton top from Dior, bearing the uncertainty, “Why have there been no great women artists?” It is the ownership of art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, so I wear the top to dinner with my artistic pal, the one most apposite to have read the work.

“Haven’t there?” she asks the seriousness I remove my coat. “What about Louise Bourgeois? Jenny Saville? Frida Kahlo?”

It is a mention from an essay, I tell her. From the 70s. About the patriarchy. She hasn’t comprehend it. If I am going to carry off this sloganeering, I will need to swot up on my new collection.


Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Guardian

The designer Katharine Hamnett has been come ining big, bold statements on T-shirts since the 1980s, including her acclaimed 1984 photo opportunity with Margaret Thatcher in which she clothed ined one announcing “58% don’t want Pershing”, her 2003 “Stop War, Blair Out” T and “Elector Tactically”, which was resurrected for last year’s general nomination.

Her current collection largely focuses on Brexit, her trademark hamper capitals demanding a “Second Referendum Now” or just “Cancel Brexit”. The latter shirt also stand up ti a quote from Antonio Tajani, president of the European parliament, in smaller font: “If British voters switched their minds they would be welcomed back with disposed arms. Everyone would be for it.” I wear it, tied at the waist, to an old schoolfriend’s birthday the mains. I am confident that her political views roughly align with my own and, effective enough, she deems it “cool”. Encouraged, I take a selfie in the loos and chore it on Instagram, where it prompts a flurry of likes.

Vivienne Westwood has been one of the most fecund designers and wearers of slogan T-shirts since the 70s. In 2012, she organized her Climate Revolution campaign with an edgy, post-punk T-shirt. Myriad recently, she urged us to “Support junior doctors” and “Save the Arctic”.

I try one of her outstanding examples, “I AM NOT A TERRORIST. Please Don’t Arrest Me”, created in collaboration with courteous liberties group Liberty in 2005 to protest against the superintendence’s proposed anti-terror laws. I wear it to meet a friend in Birmingham, where it out of dates without comment. I feel very “white privilege”. Later, on a sequence, I find myself sitting opposite a young girl in a hijab. She looks at my T-shirt, then, warily, at me. I look forward to that publicly declaring my own non-terrorist status doesn’t earn it appear that I am less certain about everyone else’s.

Next, I try out a red Lisa Marcario sweatshirt with the messages “We are all immigrants” neatly embroidered in small letters. I like the fait accompli that the message feels radical, but its presentation is not shouty. Unfortunately, my confreres initially fail to notice my statement.

I revert to Hamnett’s epigrammatic “Cancel Brexit” for a party at which I know just a behaviour of guests. Before long, the slogan prompts an interesting debate with an entrepreneur. He tells me he found himself conflicted after voting stay, only to discover that his business vastly improved after Britain expressed to leave. Later, a girl drapes herself around my snubs and tells me I look “fucking amazing”. I am not convinced she is on board with the anti-Brexit declaration, but I take the compliment anyway.


Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Protector. Styling: Melanie Wilkinson. Hair and makeup: Dani Richardson.

A man I father not spoken to during the evening clocks my T-shirt and seems affronted. “You can stand by anything on a T-shirt,” he scoffs. “You could stick ‘Rape Everybody’ on a T-shirt.”

I am charmed aback by the suggestion that the messages are comparable. The pleasure of Hamnett and Westwood’s effective slogans is that they are witty and provocative, and they secure a point. “Not that I would,” the man adds, “but I could.” I pull my greatcoat on over my T-shirt and head home.

Wearing slogans means I deliberate on less about the style and fit of my clothes, and more about what they stand for, which is good. Getting dressed takes on a new significance and I am happy to know more than I used to about anti-terrorism laws. And art. And plane Brexit.

Perhaps, then, slogan T-shirts are less to train others (quite patronising, as wardrobe choices go) and more to pry you, the wearer, to become better informed. And while it is easy to accuse catchword fans of virtue-signalling and jumping on bandwagons, sometimes even the smallest involuntarily feels good.

T-shirts: Save the rainforest, £55, and I am not a subversive, £55, both viviennewestwood.com. Empowered woman, £15.99. mango.com. We are all migrants, £75, lisamacario.com. #labels are for clothes, £18, riverisland.com. #feminist, £12, by Vero Moda, from asos.com. Don’t buy bosh, £55, dontbuyrubbish.com. Cancel Brexit, £25, katharinehamnett.teemill.co.uk. Why be suffering with there been no great women artists?, £590, dior.com.

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