Fashion can be an important vehicle to steer change as long as it doesn’t stop at T-shirt activism.
It was at the Spring 2017 Paris Fashion Week showcase in September 2016, that Maria Grazia Chiuri, the then newly appointed, and the first ever female artistic director at Dior, presented her debut collection for the house. The collection’s army of romantic dresses in tulle and lace were, in every sense of the word, “feminine” — an aesthetic that has been Dior’s signature since its inception. What came to define the pulse of the show, and Dior’s stance for several seasons to follow was, however, a white slogan tee that read, “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS” — the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk and book.
Soon after this statement tee made its runway debut, the rest of the fashion world saw a ripple effect as perhaps a response to the era’s tumultuous political climate. In the following (fashion) season, designers Prabal Gurung and Christian Siriano showcased similar slogan tees with politicised messages like, “People are people”, “I am an immigrant”, “Revolution has no borders” and “The future is female.” From celebrity soirees to high streets, protest (slogan) tees seemed to have cultivated fashion’s “it” trend status, consequently trickling down to fast fashion stores around the world, a space where their popularity continues to soar.
The History of Protest Tees
To think that it’s only the troubled political scenario of present times that has inspired fashion to speak out is far from true. Fashion has almost always been intertwined with politics. T-shirts, specifically, have long served as a powerful canvas for political messaging. Back in 1977, queen of punk, Vivienne Westwood, with her partner Malcolm McLaren, created what was possibly one of their most controversial pieces — a shirt with a red Nazi swastika, an inverted crucifixion, along with the words “DESTROY” and the lyrics of the Sex Pistols song, ‘Anarchy in the U.K’. In the 80s’, Katharine Hamnett, with the launch of her brand of political slogan T-shirts, became the forerunner of a culture of resistance. Some of her creations include, “Choose Life”, “Save the Sea”, “Make Poverty History”, the iconic, “58% don’t want Pershing” T-shirt that she wore to meet Margaret Thatcher in 1984, and, more recently, “Cancel Brexit”.
Feminism Becomes Fashionable
One of the best modern-day examples of how a political movement has turned into a fashionable pop-culture phenomenon is feminism. Historically speaking, feminism, as Andi Zeisler, author of the book, ‘We Were Feminists Once’, describes, was thought to be “the realm of the angry, the cynical, the man-hating, and the off-puttingly hairy”. Today, feminism has become trendy and cool. Zeisler attributes this to what she calls “marketplace feminism” — “branding feminism as an identity that everyone can and should consume.” We now have the likes of H&M, Forever 21 and She-in cashing on the trend with their feminist tees (and jewellery, socks, tote bags…the list goes on). Let’s not forget that these brands with their merchandise emblazoned with catchphrases about women empowerment are the same ones that have society’s poorest women working for them in sweatshop conditions at extremely low wages.
Commercialising Social Issues
Using fashion as a medium for expression, whether personal or political, is an individual choice, and, history is proof that it has effectively given the silenced and the marginalised a voice. However, the commercialisation of social movements in today’s image-obsessed culture comes with the risk of important messages getting reduced to Instagrammable moments; a fact that creators are very well-aware of. In an interview with Grazia magazine, Hamnett, on being asked whether political fashion faces the danger of becoming gimmicky, said — “It’s definitely cool to look as if you care.”
Brands today are increasingly using “woke-washing” tactics to appear socially conscious, and to appeal to the millennial and Gen Z market. It’s eventually left on us consumers to judge the legitimacy of their claims. It is left on us to call them out when they vaguely state that they are “dedicating a percentage of proceeds from each sale” to a noble cause — we would really like to know what percentage.
This isn’t to suggest that protest tees are all a sham. We know that protest dressing can spark a debate about important world issues. Protest dressing can even spur positive change. But as long as it doesn’t come with an essential follow-through on the message, it isn’t protest; it’s merely a great photo-op.5