T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion


13 February 2018

"This exhibition has definitely struck a chord," says Dennis Nothdruft, head of exhibitions at the Fashion and Textile Museum and one of the co-curators of T-Shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion. "I think it's the time we're in. People are far more politically engaged than they've been for a long time."

The exhibition, which features more than 100 cotton undershirts and covers a period of some 70 years, opened last Friday. Working its way through 12 thematic categories, which focus on topics such as protest, concert culture, ecology, and printing techniques, it traces the history of the popularisation of the T-shirt in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The exhibition is packed when I visit on a weekday morning, and a radio team from the BBC has just left when I sit down with Nothdruft.

The exhibition takes a private collection of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Maclaren T-shirts as its springboard for exploring the modern history of the garment, placing agitprop and punk provocation at the core of the display. Besides a current resurgence in political engagement among young people that might chime with the punk era, Nothdruft attributes the popularity of the show to the immediate and intimate relationship that virtually every visitor will have with the subject. "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," he says.

This ubiquity is relatively new in the grand history of the T-shirt. A timeline at the beginning of the T-Shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion starts at 500 AD, an approximate date to which the first recorded T-shirt-like garments can be traced back. Screen-printing is an ancient technique too, only patented for industrial use in 1907. It is with the rise of fast fashion in the 1980s and 90s that T-shirt production and consumption took off exponentially. By the early 2000s, more than 2bn T-shirts were sold each year; a figure which is estimated to have risen considerably since then.

That the market today is awash with cheap T-shirts has often earned the garment the status of being democratic. T-Shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion does a good job of examining both the possibilities and the downside of this. On the one hand, there is the T-shirt's potential for customisation and individual expression, exemplified by a section on tie-dye, iron-on transfers, and digital printing, which includes both historical instruction manuals and examples of finished products (the terrifying novelty "Pug T-shirt" acts as an example of the most recent digital printing techniques available). But on the other hand, the exploitative and grossly polluting supply chains that underpin the fast fashion industry are brought to the fore in a section entitled 'Ethics and Ecology'.

Digital printing with computer-controlled lasers and high-pressure ink jets has given rise to novelty T-shirts. IMAGE Disegno.

This section features T-shirts by Katharine Hamnett, who has been producing T-shirts sporting political slogans since the 1983, but who, explains Nothdruft, "stopped producing T-shirts [later] in the 1980s, because she couldn't get cotton that wasn't horribly damaging to the environment. She didn't start producing again until environmentally friendlier, organic, non-exploitative fabrics were available." T-shirt designs by Vivienne Westwood also feature prominently in this section, with the 'Climate Revolution' placards from her catwalk shows forming a backdrop to the display. For whom is the T-shirt democratic? To describe it uncritically as such is to occlude the human and ecological cost of its production.

In addition to being seen as democratic, the T-shirt is often also described as unisex or gender neutral. But the popularisation of the T-shirt is in fact rooted in deeply gendered histories. The first modern T-shirts were utilitarian military and sports garments, associated with a particular masculine ideal. In 1938, the US retailer Sears marketed their T-shirt line with the slogan: "You don't have to be a soldier to have your own personal T-shirt", and in 1942, a cover of Life magazine featured a muscular model wearing a T-type undershirt issued by the US navy. The earliest T-shirt on display in the exhibition is a 1932 University of Southern California sports T-shirt, emblazoned with the now-cult inscription "Property of ...", originally printed on sports T-shirts to prevent them being taken off campus.

The popularisation of the T-shirt is bound up with particular masculine ideals. IMAGE Disegno.

Fantasies of military prowess and sporting accomplishment inform the early popularisation of the T-shirt. The ideal of youthful, American hyper-masculinity was cemented in the 1950s, when Marlon Brando and James Dean appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire and Rebel Without a Cause sporting plain white T-shirts. Later, the T-shirt saw feminised forms of eroticisation too; consider the "wet T-shirt contest" popularised in the 1970s and 80s. The section 'Unisex' highlights such gendered histories of the supposedly genderless garment. "Here, we've taken a series of T-shirts – some of them famous, like the Vivienne Westwood T-shirt with breasts and Walter van Bierendonck's hairy-chested T-shirts – and put them on the opposite mannequin. So you've got male mannequins wearing the tits, or female ones wearing the hairy-chested top," explains Nothdruft. "We wanted to ask what is gender and how we define it."

Many of the T-shirts in the exhibition feature progressive slogans; there is an entire section, entitled 'Personal/Political', devoted to T-shirt messaging by early LGBTQ+ rights groups and AIDS activists. These include artist Keith Haring's first "Ignorance = Fear/Silence = Death" designs for ACT UP, and Skylar Thomas' 1990 "Nobody Knows I'm a Lesbian" T-shirt for Don't Panic. This particular collection belongs to the Fashion and Textiles Museum itself, and were some of the most powerful exhibits for Nothdruft to revisit. "That was 1989," he says of the Haring design. "It wasn't that long ago."

All Over Trump, from a series by photographer Susan Barnett. IMAGE Susan Barnett courtesy of Fashion and Textile Museum.

I ask Nothdruft if he thinks, given the messaging of most of the T-shirts in the exhibition, that T-shirts are an inherently progressive medium for self-expression. "No, the idea of the title of the show was to play around with those kinds of ideas," he says. T-Shirt: Cult - Culture - Subversion refers to the cult mentality that consumers can unwittingly adopt by buying into an emblazoned slogan or brand. Accompanying the show is also a related display of photographs by Susan Barnett. Here, sitters are photographed from the back, wearing T-shirts back-to-front. "If you look at Susan's work," says Nothdruft, "there are lots of T-shirts that I find offensive politically – that horrible Donald Trump one, for example. But she's an objective observer of these people and doesn't pass any comment. T-shirts don't have to be progressive, I think they can be retrogressive too."

This is why the Haring T-shirts ultimately resonated with Nothdruft. "We've come a long, long way," he says. "But it struck me how easy it is for those freedoms to go, be taken for granted, and for us to become complacent. It's not always going to move in the direction we want it to. So for me that was a wake-up call."