T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion

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The Fashion and Textile museum is putting the popular item of clothing centre stage

The T-Shirt may be one of the most affordable and unassuming items of clothing but it might also be the most powerful: a tool for personal expression, communication, identification, community or political statements, our t-shirts are a personal archive in our wardrobes. With Cult - Culture - Subversion, the Fashion and Textile Museum is highlighting the history of the humble garment as a vessel for communication and a means to broadcast personal affinities and affiliations. Along the 12 installations, the exhibitions also educates about the various techniques for applying messages to fabric.

But first, a little bit of history: The t-shirt may be one of the oldest items of clothing, documented as early as 500 AD, when utilitarian, t-shaped tunics were first developed to be worn as men’s undergarments. The first documented mention of the term ‘T-Shirt’ appeared - how fitting! - in This Side of Paradise, a novel by that most fashionable of writers F. Scott Fitzgerald. From there on, the rise of the undergarment to the most essential feature of wardrobes all over the world was unstoppable. A Wizard of Oz T-shirt from 1939 is believed to be the first documented use of a piece of clothing as an advertisement tool. 1959 saw teenage heartthrob James Dean catapult the simple white t-shirt to sex symbol status. 1977, and Milton Glaser designs the I ♥ NY T-shirt, one of the most recognizable designs of the twentieth century. In 1984 Katherine Hamnett met Margaret Thatcher wearing a political message T-shirt. In 2017, Maria Grazia Chiuri sent models down the Dior catwalk in “We should all be feminists” T-shirts. The many ways the T-shirt is used to communicate messages is astounding: the college, university or sports team T-shirt shows belonging, the fan or souvenir T-shirt shows personal attachment and alliance, the promotional T-shirt is a marketing tool, the campaign T-shirt shows silent support for concerns or current controversies.

T-Shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion, Main Gallery. Copyright Fashion and Textile Museum

A whole wall is dedicated to the interplay between T-shirts and music fandom. Originally produced as work uniform for road crew technicians, the fan T-shirt, both promotional tool and personal souvenir, is one of the most visible indicators of loyalty and lived experiences, connecting people and music and often making a statement of political ideology as well. Band T-shirts never go out of fashion and nostalgic “vintage” designs are perennially reproduced and reintroduced for new generations to follow - just think of the current trend for heavy metal T-shirts or the iconic logos of The Ramones or The Rolling Stones. Some designs have taken on a live of their own, such as Experimental Jetset’s simple Helvetica Beatles T-Shirt (John&Paul&Ringo&George.) which has been adapted, covered and subverted for various political causes.

Other sections of the exhibition are dedicated to manufacturing, exploring how embellishing techniques have changed from tie-dye to screen printing to modern digital prints that can create a tromp d’oeil effect. One section explores how subculture filters through to the mainstream, with early punk T-shirts, deliberately destroyed and distressed and rooted in social rebellion, adapted by high fashion. Lee Price’s collection of early Vivienne Westwood T-shirts is featured to show the T-shirt as personal archive, telling a story about the collector and the T-shirt itself.

T-Shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion, Main Gallery. Copyright Fashion and Textile Museum

The Personal/Political installation shows the T-Shirt as a form of protest, a portable canvas for expressing one’s views from “No More Page 3” to “This is what a feminist looks like” to “Don’t shoot”, the T-shirt accompanying the Black Lives Matter campaign.

T-Shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion, Mezzanine. Copyright Fashion and Textile Museum.

Upstairs, the exhibition explores the unisex aspect of the T-shirt and what it can bring to gender debates. A small section is also dedicated to the T-shirt evolving and transforming through new technologies (the InfiniTshirt is connected to the internet!) and as a high-fashion statement. Designer T-shirts hold an ambiguous position between accessibility and exclusivity and the exhibitions doesn’t fail to also nod to counterfeits and designer parody T-shirts that had a moment of popularity a while ago (remember Ain’t Laurent without Yves?). The ridiculously expensive £185 DHL T-shirt by Vetement that made waves on fashion blogs as an absolute must have before dying a quick death is also on show, albeit in the original £6.50 version.

T-Shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion, Mezzanine. Copyright Fashion and Textile Museum

The exhibition also doesn’t shy away from taking a critical look at the paradoxical ethics of T-shirt production: while it can be used to raise awareness for social and political messages, T-shirt production puts a strain on natural resources and is linked to unfair labour conditions around the globe. Because the T-shirt is cheap and accessible, it is also disposable, falling out of favour fast.

The T-shirt can be both playful and powerful, universal and deeply personal, underwear and outerwear, basic or embellished, a designer piece or the cheapest part of an outfit, mass manufactured or one of a kind. Whichever you wear, it communicates. Wearing a T-shirt is to be part of a never-ending conversation.

T-Shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion is at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 6 May