The T-Shirt is a universal wardrobe staple, though it’s anything but culturally neutral. This spring, a new exhibition details why

The history of the T-shirt is a startlingly long one. The first iteration of the iconic cotton garment was created in 1913 for the US Uniform Regulation Kit – an item of pure functionality and purpose. Since those humble beginnings, the T-shirt has largely maintained its form and shape, although it’s meaning has transformed drastically across the ages, adapting and moulding to cultural shifts and ideological movements. It’s century-long history is peppered with landmark designs that will most likely go unforgotten – whether it’s Marlon Brando’s classic white tee in A Streetcar Named Desire, Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution T-Shirts or Hermes’ crocodile skin tee – valued at a staggering £72,000. To celebrate the garment’s incredible story, the Fashion and Textile Museum have curated T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion this spring. In time for this landmark exhibition, we profile some of the most significant T-Shirt groupings to have characterised fashion, politics and taste over the past 100 years.

FANDOM

Do you know the band on your T-Shirt? Formally a sign of devoted fandom, band tees started out as marking out music communities in the early 1960s, namely when concert producer Bill Graham developed iconic designs for Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. Artists such as Nirvana, Metallica, Tupac Shakur and Prince have since graced the chests of committed fans – standing as emblems of true dedication and loyalty. This purist sensibility is still in check, although it’s fair to say that those who wear most re-appropriated high- street versions are oblivious and/or disinterested in the artist sprawled across their tee. Does it matter? Should we respect, or at least know, the band we wear...even if it’s from Primark? Till now, the topic is still a battleground with hardly any resolve. Where do you stand?

SILENT PROTEST

‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING’ reads the iconic oversized tee proudly worn by designer Katharine Hamnett on meeting former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. A bold statement against the atrocities of the Vietnam War, Hamnett’s protest encouraged immediate engagement and is a testament to the undeniable potential of dress to subvert power structures. Harmnett‘s career is defined by her transgressive slogans, although she has since admitted to the inevitable laziness in wearing politically charged t-shirts if concrete action doesn’t follow. Even so, the t-shirt continues to be used as a tool for revolt, disruption and awareness, whether that be Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution tees, or more recently artist Wolfgang Tillman’s anti-Brexit t-shirts emblazoned with “Say You’re In If You’re In”.

 

WEARABLE ART

The value of art has long been contested – it’s ethereal worth based on uncertain and ever-changing terms. So what happens when a renowned art piece is circulated on mass-produced cotton? The T-Shirt as canvas makes art accessible to all, disseminating iconic images and messages outside the confines of the white cube. Barbara Kruger’s slogan ‘I Shop Therefore I Am’ acquires ironic significance when sprawled across a tee; unlike the original artwork it has the potential to disperse it’s critique in everyday arenas. Equally, Keith Haring’s famous primary coloured figures receive a new and diverse audience when worn throughout the winding streets of any given community. In this way, the t-shirt evolves into an artwork in itself, a complex means of aesthetic and idea distribution that transgresses social hierarchies.

STREET SEMANTICS

It’s only recently that streetwear acquired the seal of approval from the fashion elite. For decades, street staples like the T-Shirt – designed by subculture brands like Stussy or Supreme – only seemed to quench the thirst of skater teens and sneaker aficionados. Now the resale rate of anticipated drops are astonishingly expensive, a testament to the newly widespread demand. Either way, streetwear T-Shirts are still markers of specific taste and cultural insight, and have a reputable history for clothing icons at the forefront of underground style and creativity. Designs by cult lifestyle brand Casette Playa exemplify a more art influenced streetwear perspective that uses colour and graphic references for statement effect. It might be fair to say that the history of street culture can be told through t-shirts and footwear alone.

HIGH FASHION

Since DHL was founded in 1969, its logo was hardly found elsewhere other than on mail. Come 2016, Vetements release a tee baring its branding for just shy of £200 to much media fanfare (DHL actually retail an identical t-shirt on their website for a fraction of the price). Such is the undeniable power of high fashion. Through ironic appropriation or simple logo use, designers elevate the status of the humble t-shirt to stratospheric heights, transforming it from agn everyday garment to an item of luxury, a signal of wealth and a bastion of ‘taste’. Can a T-Shirt ever justify a hefty price tag if all that’s printed on it is a logo? Does the value of a high fashion garment lay in it’s design detail or the idea it represents? T-Shirt: Cult – Culture –

Subversion is open now at the Fashion and Textile Museum until May 6 2018.

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