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Fashion & Textile Museum- T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion | Image: Hawthorne & Heaney


How often do we wear T-shirts? Are you currently wearing one while reading this? Here at Hawthorne & Heaney, most of us are definitely in a T-shirt once we are home. But how much do we know about T-shirt? According to Dennis Nothdruft, head of exhibitions at the Fashion and Textile Museum and one of the co-curators of T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion, he says “We all know what T-shirts are, and we all wear them. I’m never going to wear a haute couture gown, but I have a relationship with T-shirts. We all do.” Despite, this relationship, do we truly know how the simple cotton T-shirt has influenced culture?


At the Fashion and Textile museum, the exhibition titled T-shirt: cult – culture – subversion, brings us on a journey to discover the history of this humble garment. It features more than 100 T-shirts, which spans across 90 years. Covering 12 thematic categories, such as embellishment techniques, ecology, concert culture. It outlines the narrative of a wearable vessel that expresses individual alliance and interest, while also echoing technical advancement, in the 20th and 21st century. With roots in controversies, activist dialogues and promotional interest, the T-shirt should not be discounted despite simple constructions.


The first T-shirt dates back to AD 500, which makes it one of the oldest and most universal constructed piece of clothing. Moreover, screen-printing is an ancient technique that became most commonplace in China during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), but it was only till 1907 when the technique was patented. In 1960, with the invention of plastisol transfer, it paved the way for glitter and metallic embellishment, resulting in the dazzling glitter T-shirts that gave rise to more options of customisation and individual expression


Plastisol Transfer allowed a greater variety and quality of images to be quickly applied to T-shirts. | Image: Hawthorne & Heaney


However, it was only till the last 30 years, with the development of digital printing and greater technology advancement that resulted in the explosion of T-shirt production. By early 2000s, more than two billion T-shirts are sold each year, and the figure has increased exponentially in recent years. Digital printing allowed for even greater self-expression through customisation, and creation of one-off tees, novelty tees, such as Pug tees.

Digital Printing: Computer controlled lasers and high pressure inkjets that place dye directly on fashion at extremely high speeds, has led to creation of photo-real and novelty tees. Pug tees: unknown designer | Image: Hawthorne & Heaney


Unfortunately, it has made t-shirts more accessible and given how fast fashion comes and goes, T-shirts have claimed the status of being disposable. This has resulted in the nauseating amount of waste and pollution, an issue addressed under ‘Ethics and Ecology’. Despite, its ability to broadcast messages and promote awareness on imperative issues, such as sustainability on the fronts of political acts or consumer choices, it is by nature a large pollutant in manufacturing. Amazingly, it can take 2,700 liters to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. This paradoxical item, because of its materiality, it is to a certain extent effective in the dialogues it have. A large part of its narrative in the exhibition features T-shirt designs by Vivienne westwood, the placards from her catwalk show on ‘Climate Revolution’.


In her show, Westwood champions reforming her company to align with her ecological beliefs, by focusing on quality rather than quantity. Westwood said that communicating the threat of climate change had become her priority and so she has been actively involved in Greenpeace efforts to Save the Arctic. “The status quo will kill us. People don’t realise how quickly we are marching towards a possible mass extinction. Once the global temperature goes up beyond two degrees, you can’t stop it. Current predictions are that we will see a rise of more like 4C or 6C, which would mean that everything below Paris would become uninhabitable.” It is very encouraging to see more fashion houses blazing the trail towards sustainability, to find out more Westwood chronicles her activities on the website Climate Revolution.


In recent years, the T-shirt has been catapulted back to high fashion status, claiming the ranks alongside bespoke dresses. An example, is the staggering demand for the Gucci T-shirt. According to Lyst, the fashion search engine, it has seen as many as 2000 searches a day for “Gucci T-shirt” (mainly from London and New York), and the tee has officially surpassed the Gucci loafers in search traffic.


Gucci Logo T-shirt 2017 | Image: Hawthorne & Heaney


Though merely a T-shirt, it has a hefty price tag of £370, which anchors the T-shirt as exclusive and cool, simultaneously broadcasting ones alliance to the label. This shows that the T-shirt holds an ambiguous position of being both accessible yet exclusionary. Interestingly enough, is that through the same vehicle of a T-shirt, parodies of T-shirts have been made to critic the fashion industry, of this obvious problem. Given the ease with which the garments can be produced, and shared across the world, there are people who raise their concerns and complaints with this medium. Some parodies are harmless, and could even be a tribute, an example is the T-shirt which says “ Ain’t Laurent without Yves”, made by Jeanine Hellier. This was said to be a tribute in memory of the designer Yves Saint Laurent who died in 2008, but at the same time, it was a critic to the choice of creative director then- Hedi Slimane, who decided to drop the Yves from the brand’s name, sparking controversy among fans of the label. This proves how T-shirt has been an aid in conversation between the audience and the creator, fashion houses and consumers.


Ain’t Laurent without Yves T-shirt by Jeanine Hellier ,2013 | Image: Hawthorne & Heaney


However, not all T-shirts are as gentle in its approach. Some were progressive in nature; There was an entire section, entitled ‘Personal/Political’, hanging with T-shirt that subscribe to  early LGBTQ groups and AIDS activists. These include artist Skylar Thomas’ 1990 “Nobody Knows I’m a Lesbian” T-shirt for Don’t Panic, that are part of the museum’s permanent collection. While others were edging on being offensive, such as the T-shirt titled ‘All over Trump’ by Susan Barnett.


A series of photographs by Susan Barnett: who views her subjects through a single article of dress: the T-shirt. By excluding faces from her portraits, Barnett allows individuals to project their identity solely through the slogans on their backs and to soundlessly express passionate messages on sexuality, race, spirituality, consumerism, violence, pleasure, history, narcissism and nihilism.| Image: Fashion & Textile Museum


Despite its offence, perhaps due to the casual nature of T-shirts, the concerns it presents are digestible and humorous. Yet, it presents an honest and insightful view to culture and the world we live in.


Humble a T-shirt might seem, this exhibition has certainly rehung the influence it holds. Not only can it fashion consumers into a cult mentality, who might unknowingly adopt a brand’s slogan, but too aids as an easy transportable billboard to voice out major concerns in the world. Now, I have to rethink what I am going to say on my T-shirt, or perhaps go plain white tee. But then again, a plain white tee does have its own undertones of meaning.


Written by Elsie Wong for London Embroidery School

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