Stephanie Talbot’s new book, Slogan T-shirts: Cult And Culture, brings home how powerful a slogan tee can be, through fascinating interviews with some of the most famous proponents of the form. The one that immediately spring to mind is Katharine Hamnett, who’s been causing a stir with her powerful, monochrome statement tees since the ‘80s (Frankie Goes To Hollywood wore Hamnett-inspired 'Frankie Say...' t-shirts designed by Paul Morley.)
Then there’s Henry Holland, who revived the form in the early noughties with his tongue in cheek tees which focussed on in-jokes with his fashion pals (“flick your bean for Agnyess Deyn”, “Get your freak on Giles Deacon”) in neon block letters.
A bold statement printed in block letters on a cotton t-shirt can be a powerful political tool - it can shock, offend or unite without the wearer having to utter a word. Katharine Hamnett visited Number 10 Downing Street to attend a reception in the same year that she was awarded Designer of the Year by the British Fashion Council. She took off her coat to reveal one of her trademark oversized tees that bore the statement ‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING’ in huge letters. Mrs T was not amused, but Katherine had made her point.
I thought back over the slogan tees I’ve worn throughout the years and what they meant to me. Originally, they were a very simple way to communicate ‘who’ you were, when that depended solely on what music you listened to. I’d wear my Blur World tee with pride (I still do!) or switch allegiance to Offspring, Nirvana or Bush when I was feeling punky or grungey.
There was major cachet in sporting a rare skate brand on your chest, or a cute cartoon representing a favoured straight-edge punk band (my MXPX ‘Girls are mean’ tee used to elicit admiring glances and comments from fellow fans when I wore it to Reading festival or the Vans Warped tour.)
I’ve never really worn ‘political’ slogan tees, but I love my Fawcett Society ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ t-shirt (I got them for the men in my life too.) I bought a Barack Obama/unicorn tee off the internet but it’s all peeled off now – sad face.
And I’ve recently rediscovered my beloved red and white polka dot NafNaf tee. I know some of these aren’t strictly ‘slogan’ tees (the Brownies tee I wore as a kid didn’t even have any words on it, but the logo was no less powerful or impactful), and as a method of visual communication a t-shirt can’t be beaten.
Last summer, I found myself unable to resist the lure of the Team GB t-shirt and wore it with pride (while also draped in a giant union jack flag) at the Paralympics. Spotting others wearing their Team GB tees on the tube always raised a smile of recognition - a simple, silent moment of connection between strangers that is a rare and precious thing in a crowded, busy city.
When talking to Stephanie Talbot for her book, Katharine Hamnett said of slogan tees "They have to be something that you would want to wear... The use of slogans on a T-shirt gives you a voice. You speak to anybody who sees you. They can be quite sexy... Article 13 of the British Prevention of Terrorism Act' says that it is illegal to wear a T-shirt with a politically contentious message. In theory you can be jailed for wearing a T-shirt that says ‘FREE TIBET’."
So tell me, have you let a carefully chosen slogan tee make a statement on your behalf? Do you wear them now and do you style them differently these days?
Slogan T-Shirts: Cult and Culture is published by Bloomsbury, £19.99