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    Tees That Talk: Fashion As A Political Tool Has Always Been About Optics, Subliminal Cues And Nuance

    , ET Bureau|
    Wear It & Say It
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    Wear It & Say It

    Anyone who says fashion is not political has not noticed the length of former American president Donald Trump’s red ties or thinks US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ sneakers-with-suits look is happenstance.

    From the suffragette white and the keffiyeh as a symbol of Palestinian self-determination to Che’s beret and Time’s Up bracelets, fashion as a political tool has always been about optics, subliminal cues and nuance. But it’s never hidden, in fact it’s all about wearing your ideology on your sleeve. And nowhere is this more evident than in the slogan T-shirt — an incredibly visible vehicle used by people to voice opinions or support movements. Every protest or social movement has produced a talking T-shirt.

    Here’s a short history of the tee that talks.

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    Dewey Did It
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    Dewey Did It

    Writer Scott Fitzgerald used the word T-shirt possibly for the first time in his 1920 novel 'This Side of Paradise'. However, it was after World War II that the message potential of a T-shirt was unleashed. In 1948, Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey emblazoned T-shirts with “Dew it with Dewey”. He lost to Harry Truman. But the slogan T-shirt won.

    In 2018, London’s Fashion and Textile Museum opened an exhibition “T-shirt: CultCulture-Subversion” with 200 iconic T-shirts that changed the status of what was originally an undergarment. In an interview to BBC.com, curator Dennis Nothdruft said, “[The T-shirt] is a really basic way of telling the world who and what you are… it was a matter of the personal as politicised.”

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    Slogan Tees, Now!
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    Slogan Tees, Now!

    In India, various protests have given us slogan tees although a lot of it is not organised and is put up on online shops outside of India.

    But “No Farmers, No Food, No Future” is a popular slogan as was “Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega” during the CAA-NRC protests. With the easy availability of digital printing, anyone can start a T-shirt campaign.

    For instance, comedian Kunal Kamra launched his line of “Wah Modiji Wah” T-shirts in 2018 while "Hindi Theriyathu Poda" (I Don’t Understand Hindi, Get Lost) tees by MP Kanimozhi went viral in 2020 after a CISF personnel at Chennai airport had asked her if she was Indian after she said she did not know Hindi.

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    The Vivienne Westwood Touch
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    The Vivienne Westwood Touch

    In the UK, designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren used tee shirt as a blank canvas for punk ideology. The UK’s punk movement was rooted in a general social malaise among British youth. Westwood and McLaren’s T-shirts tackled everything from religion to fascism.

    By 1973, The New York Times dubbed the T-shirt as “the medium for the message”.

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    Feminist Slogans
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    Feminist Slogans

    Critics call it the fourth-wave feminism slogans. The Fawcett Society, with Elle UK, took out a T-shirt with the slogan “This is what a Feminist looks Like”, designed mainly for men to wear.

    In Spring/Summer 2017, Dior sent out “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirts on to the ramp, designed by the first female head designer Maria Grazia Churi. The slogan is a reference to Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book of the same name.

    In 2018, designer Prabal Gurung made “The Future is Female” line of tees.

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    High-Fashion Activism
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    High-Fashion Activism

    Maison Margiela was one of the first names to make T-shirt activism fashionable when he used tees to spread AIDS awareness in Fall/Winter 1994. In 2001, upscale streetwear label Supreme released T-shirts to generate aid for 9/11 victims.

    In 2020, it joined forces with Takashi Murakami to raise money for Covid-19 relief. Nike too has a running “BeTrue” campaign of clothing and sneakers to show support with the LGBTQ+ community. Starting in 2006, Marc Jacobs released a series of T-shirts featuring various celebrities posing naked to raise awareness and funds for skin cancer.

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    ​The Sixties
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    ​The Sixties

    The affordability of the T-shirt and its widespread adoption made it a symbol for political activism throughout the 1960s — from the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War. In 1968, Harvard students wore anti-war T-shirts during sitins. Around the same time, the NAACP and Black Panther Party too used T-shirts to promote its agenda. Since then, T-shirts have been part of the Black protest tradition, latest being Black Lives Matter.

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    Big Bold Message
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    Big Bold Message

    In 1984, designer Katharine Hamnett wore a slogan tee that read “58% Don’t Want Pershing” while shaking hands with UK's then prime minister Margaret Thatcher to make an anti-thermonuclear war statement. Hamnett contributed to the rise of protest clothing in her signature style — oversized, bold, black font on white cotton T-shirts with slogans like “Choose Life” to “Save The World” to recently “Cancel Brexit”.

    She told The Guardian, “I wanted to put a really large message on T-shirts that could be read from 20 or 30 ft away. Slogans work on so many different levels…They are also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They are tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself.”

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    ​Tee For Fundraising
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    ​Tee For Fundraising

    In the late 1980s, the African National Congress (ANC) used T-shirt with graphics calling to end the Apartheid in South Africa, or with portraits of the then imprisoned Nelson Mandela. It was a way for people to voice support or even make an informal donation to ANC — a major turning point in T-shirt activism as it was now used to raise funds.

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