The Genteel
April 22, 2021


Katharine Hamnett has been producing t-shirts with proactive messages since the early '80s.
"That man did come up with an idea for a 
t-shirt and he made a lot of money off it."

Overlooked and under-appreciated, t-shirts are often an after-thought as we shop instead for sophisticated blouses, sexy camisoles, cosy sweaters, fresh button-downs or fun tube tops. Yet, in recent decades, the wardrobe underdog has been actively participating in social and political discourse - which is more than most blouses, camisoles, sweaters, button-downs or tube tops can say. From promoting a favourite band to bringing awareness to a cause du jour, t-shirts have had a lot to say over the years - evolving from practical to political, into a garment with mass-influence.

T-shirts were first welcomed as underwear by the U.S. Navy in 1913, when white cotton crew neck t-shirts became a required undergarment for all U.S. Navy members, and by 1920, Merriam-Webster's dictionary officially welcomed "t-shirt" into our vocabulary. In 1932, University of Southern California's football team, the Trojans, started wearing white t-shirts (developed by Jockey) underneath their uniforms to prevent chafing. These t-shirts started to trend when the student body decided to sport them casually around campus. Ironically, the university began stamping these t-shirts with "Property Of" stencils to avoid theft - unaware of its eventual impact on campus-wear across the country.

The t-shirt's light fabric, non-tailored fit, and transition from underwear to outwear was revolutionary. Not to mention, sexy. It seems, though, that its sexual allure can be credited to actor Marlon Brando - a golden Hollywood star who wore a body-hugging t-shirt in the popular 1951 film, A Street Car Named Desire. Brando's rebellious reputation - both on and off screen - made the t-shirt just that much more appealing; so much so that by the end of 1951, t-shirt sales had reportedly spiked to a total of US$180 million.

Whether it is hoping for change, or telling someone to get lost, the t-shirt offers an individualised approach to socio-political commentary.

Brando's appearance in A Street Car Named Desire brought the t-shirt into the mainstream. The t-shirt went on to earn a place in 1960s hippie culture and social politics when advertiser Don Price re-marketed Rit dye to a younger generation. It's safe to conclude that Price was a smart man, because in 1969 he created hundreds of tie-dye t-shirts and gave them out to performers at the Woodstock Music Festival. The move consequently pioneered the iconic tie-dye t-shirt trend amongst the hippie generation, becoming a visual signifier for their social and political beliefs.

Advertisers and marketers quickly began to realise the t-shirt's power to communicate. The Commerce Department of New York City caught on when they hired graphic designer Milton Glaser to create the iconic "I Love NY" t-shirt - helping boost tourism at a time when New York City's reputation was tainted by high crime. In addition to advertising, "I Love NY" offered the city's residents a sense of pride and positive communal feeling.

It's impossible to discuss t-shirts as political wear without mentioning designer Katharine Hamnett, who began producing t-shirts with proactive messages in the early '80s. In 2011, she teamed up with retail mogul Alannah Weston (whose family owns UK's Selfridges, Canada's Holt Renfew and Ireland's Brown Thomas) to create t-shirts for the Ocean Project, in hopes of bringing awareness to the global depletion of fish stock. The t-shirts featured slogans in block capitals such as, "No More Fish In The Sea?" and were sold exclusively at Selfridges for £40.

Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Recently, the high fashion industry turned to the humble t-shirt for political expression. For Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, his team worked with 23 high-profile fashion designers - including Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler - creating a very in-demand Runway To Win collection that featured stylish campaign t-shirts.

Always an activist, Vivienne Westwood, wore a "Climate Revolution" t-shirt to her spring 2013 Red Label show in London, while model Jade Parfit, who was in the audience, wore a Vivienne Westwood-designed "I'm Julian Assange" t-shirt - Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, is battling extradition to Sweden for alleged sexual offenses. Westwood wore the shirt herself at the end of October 2012 whilst visiting Assange at Ecuador's Embassy in London where he is seeking shelter, reported Katherine Zarella for ARTINFO. Westwood is selling the unisex t-shirts for US$75, with all proceeds going to WikiLeaks.

In 2012, Levi's and Intel partnered with artists Xu Bing and Mariko Mori, as well as musician Santigold and filmmaker Gael Garcia Bernal to create limited edition t-shirts that discuss the importance of art education. The t-shirts also aim to increase funding for creative learning programs at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

Los Angeles-based Social Atelier, founded by Andrei Najjar and Yael Afriat, was born "out of a need to create awareness for social issues in the world. Fashion is our handwriting for this," stated Najjar. As a high-end t-shirt brand, Social Atelier is focused on shining a spotlight on many global issues including genocide, global warming, poverty and body image complexes. The t-shirts are made out of 100 per cent organic cotton and are available in basic black, white, blue and grey. The proactive tees are priced at US$88, with 15 per cent of proceeds going to the organisation, Save Darfur.

Right: model Jade Parfit; Left: Vivienne Westwood.

In a media-saturated culture - where one can make a statement through multiple channels - it may seem odd that we still turn to t-shirts to express socio-political beliefs. But, as Sammy R. Danna, author of Advertising & Popular Culture: Studies in Variety and Versatility, explains "…unlike conventional media, t-shirt message proliferation is controlled by the wearer rather than the advertiser." 

And perhaps that's the key to why the t-shirt is the medium of choice for social and political statements - because it empowers the wearer. When we are constantly fighting to be heard - whether through a tweet or a public speech - a t-shirt is the most stylish and personal form of mass-communication. One can chose the message they'd like to convey, an opportunity that is - ironically - scarce, when mass media is largely controlled by gatekeepers and tycoons.

Like a blank canvas waiting for self-expression and reflection, the humble t-shirt kindly lends itself for our anger, pride and hope. Whether it is hoping for change, or telling someone to get lost, the t-shirt offers an individualised approach to socio-political commentary. With a t-shirt, you can own your opinion and wear it too.



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.