The slogan of a t-shirt sends a message and probably as you read this article you wear one of these clothes with a particular message.
From “Just Do It” from Nike to “This Is What Feminist Looks Like,” these messages can reveal a lot about the identity of the person who wears them. They can tell us who they are or want to be, and reveal their hopes, dreams and political choices.
Who invented slogans for clothes?
Author and presenter Michael Rosen discover what drives us to display our thoughts on our chest. According to BBC, it is difficult to determine exactly when slogans were first posted, but we know that in 1948 the slogan “Do it with Dewey” was used on children’s t-shirts to support the campaign presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey.
As technology progressed, it became easier to create t-shirts with slogans, and their use spread. And then, in the sixties and seventies, the fusible lettering appeared: “it was a key moment,” says fashion historian Amber Butchart, “where you could suddenly get a very personal message on a very, very fast t-shirt”.
Suddenly, the possibilities for people to create their own house slogans had become endless. A 1973 article in the American newspaper New York Times referred to t-shirts as “a medium for a message” in reference to Watergate-inspired t-shirts with phrases like “I’m Democrat, Do not Bug Me” (I’m a democrat, do not bother me).
And in the UK, fashion designer Katherine Hamnett was photographed in the early ‘80s next to Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, wearing a t-shirt saying “58% Do not Want Pershing” (58% do want no Pershing) – a reference to an airbase in the United Kingdom that was taking delivery of almost a hundred cruise missiles.
Caryn Franklin, the fashion commentator, says: “Hamnett wanted to create a truly readable banner title” and “offer fashion as a means of political expression”. These examples are the precursors of modern political slogans: “Is there a more infamous slogan than Trump’s “Make America Great Again” for the 2016 US presidential race?”
Slogans of protest
Many t-shirts with slogans “protest the dictates of cultures and ruling classes,” says Caryn, “slogans are a way for marginalized groups to get noticed.” The “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt put women’s equality issues first, and even in the British House of Commons when it was worn by many women of high ranking politicians.
The slogan “Black Power” is another example of the fact that the more you are marginalized, the more the t-shirt becomes an essential tool to be seen and heard. “No More Page Three” was a move that took the British tabloid The Sun to the part about the pictures of the topless women who still appeared on the third page of the newspaper. It worked: the t-shirts were seen everywhere, the campaign gained ground and The Sun removed the models from page three.
Caryn says that with slogans, one can also “seize the words that are supposed to hurt and thus neutralize them, removing the power to those who want to offend”.
This would apply to many insulting t-shirts. Amber’s t-shirt proclaiming “Beatlemania” recalls some of the earliest examples of slogans and their use as a trademark and as a “tribal marker”. A t-shirt with the name of a group or music festival you attended shows your allegiance: you are part of a clan or movement.
During a girl’s burial weekend, a group of women can wear t-shirts with the “Tina’s Hen Party” emblem to show which group they belong to – or even “Bride Tribe”. Holiday t-shirts are often offered as a gift to resentful family members, but they also serve as a marker of where you’ve been.
Slogans like “Here Today, Gone To Maui” or “I Heart NY” inform people of the tribe to which you are aligning and your belonging.
Slogans can simply be fun, with many people using their t-shirts as an opportunity to share jokes and puns. Have you ever seen a proud father sport a “This Is What An Awesome Dad Looks Like”? There is also “I Was Hoping For A Battle Of Wits But You seem to be unarmed”, or “Behind Every Great Man … Is a Woman Rolling Her Eyes” (behind a tall man is a woman who rolls eyes) But maybe you are more ironic and have instead opted for an “I hate T-Shirts with funny slogans”.
“The eighties were definitely a decade of ostentatious consumerism in which we started to see and buy designer sportswear and designer jeans,” says Amber. The brand and logo started to take center stage and demand a higher price, even though the product itself was probably the same.
By wearing labels, we promote brands like Nike or Adidas, but we also buy the lifestyles that these brands advertise. If we highlight Calvin Klein, we may want to say that we want to be part of the “beach ready” lifestyle, free and easy… Or perhaps, without our knowledge, we are making it clear that we are not as trendy as we thought.
Why are slogans so popular today?
One of the reasons we are witnessing this resurgence of dress slogans, says Amber, is “partly because of the divided nature of politics at the moment. We live in a time when political consciousness is stronger. People marry causes and want to make an immediate statement about their membership in a group,” says Amber.
And Caryn agrees, “A slogan is a very good way to cut through all the assumptions a person makes about you, it allows you to choose the exact message you want to communicate.” And then there is the influence of social media. In a way, one could say that t-shirts with slogan were a forerunner of social media: instantaneously communicate a feeling, in a form as short as possible.
Now, of course, we have Twitter and other platforms, so we’re used to doing it every day – and there’s “nothing more unstoppable,” says Amber, than words about clothes.
Will slogans always be in fashion?
Absolutely! “I think it’s such an amazing medium of communication,” says Caryn. “This is an opportunity for us to talk about ourselves without opening our mouths.” Amber agrees: “It may not be fashionable, but what works is the idea of being able to get a message out very quickly, and that will be there in the years to come.” “The slogan t-shirt itself will certainly never die,” she says.