Exhibition Archives: T-shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion

Introduction

This exhibition takes a unique position on the history of the T-shirt. It aims to stimulate thinking about fashion as a communicative tool and about our personal consumption and expression of clothing. It also highlights the collecting of T-shirts as a personal archival practice that illustrates how we all own a part of history – personal or universal – in our wardrobes.

Travelling through the history of this humble garment, the exhibition puts the ubiquitous and the unusual on an equal footing. The T-shirts on display inspire dialogue and new ways of looking at a familiar object.

The T-shirt is omni-present and utilitarian. It has been used to protect the individual and is a vessel for communicating to the collective social body. By examining the T-shirt in relation to cult, culture and subversion we focus on how it has been a means to broadcast personal affinities and affiliations, while also reflecting creative and technical innovation. The design, production, and dissemination of the T-shirt, and its controversies, are part of global cultural processes and dialogues.

The 12 installations explore aspects of the T-shirt as a communication tool. In collecting them into thematic groups, the exhibition stages the messages and histories of each garment, inviting us to listen in and interpret their meanings anew.

Basic

This exhibition is not a history of the T-shirt. It would be ambitious, if not impossible, to present a comprehensive biography of this simple yet complex garment. To foreground the specific focus of T-Shirt: Cult, Culture and Subversion, this section offers a timeline of selected milestones in the life of the T-shirt. The focus is on moments that position it as a protagonist in cultural, political and technological narratives.

The material in this display introduces some of the most familiar types of T-shirt to remind us how the garment has been an object in the service of community, commerce and personal identity. It also offers an overview of the technological processes that have fuelled its evolution from basic utility undergarment to the world’s most ubiquitous and communicative fashion item.

T-shirt Typologies:

University Athletics: After their appearance in military regulation kits, in the USA and in Britain, T-shirts rapidly became part of sporting uniforms. At the University of Southern California, and elsewhere, the frequently reproduced ‘Property of’ T-shirts were made, denoting that these T-shirts were not meant to be removed from locker rooms.

Promotional T-shirts: Although it is widely written that the first ever promotional T-shirt was produced to advertise the Wizard of Oz film in 1939, by the 1950s the practice was widespread as a means of advertising an array of products. Whether worn in television advertising campaigns or given away to potential customers, T-shirts continue to be a vital marketing tool.

Souvenir and novelty T-shirts:

Since the 1930s in America, souvenir T-shirts have been a way for individuals to commemorate their visits to places of interest, and having been witness to significant historical events. The first Mickey Mouse T-shirts were sold at Disneyland from its opening in 1955, and following on the trend for producing printed T-shirts that appealed to children initiated by the rise of television as a form of family entertainment.

Campaign:

Most of the T-shirts in this exhibition date from the late 1970s onwards, but even prior to this period, T-shirts had played a role in political and activist dialogues. By offering members of the public means to ‘silently’ show their support for collective concerns, T-shirts shifted from banal to sensational and often incited or responded to current controversies.

T-shirt Embellishment Techniques:

Because this exhibition focuses on the textual and pictorial messages conveyed by T-shirts, the various techniques for applying these messages foreground its content. Throughout the display, a variety of these techniques can be observed, the most prevalent of which is screen-printing: a technique that originated in China during the Song Dynasty (ad 960–1279).

SCREEN-PRINTING is accomplished by forcing ink through a partially masked screen or stencil. Today, the screen-printing of T-shirts is accomplished largely via automated processes, but hand screen-printing still persists.

The type of fabric – traditionally silk – and gauge of the weave determine the level of detail achievable. In the early twentieth century, photosensitive emulsions were developed that were applied to screens before exposing an image to light, permitting detailed designs to be applied to screens. For each colour in a design, a new screen was needed. Screen-printing on cotton jersey was advanced by the development of plastisol inks in the 1950s.

The screen-printing process can also add texture and dimension to a T-shirt. By printing with an adhesive instead of ink, T-shirts can be FLOCKED, giving designs a raised appearance and velvety feel. This technique was widely used to print on dark fabrics before the development of opaque inks.

In the early 1960s, the plastisol TRANSFER was introduced, allowing designs to be applied to T-shirts with an iron or heat press. In the next decades, this process was often employed to produce novelty T-shirts with photographic and dazzling glitter images.

The last 30 years have seen digital technology revolutionise T-shirt printing. Not only DIGITAL printing itself – capable of adding minute detail and millions of colours to the T-shirt – but also the introduction of inkjet-printable transfer paper assures that T-shirts will continue to be embellished, whether made by large-scale manufacturing or increasingly sophisticated DIY practices.

Agitprop

Agitprop is political propaganda that spreads through popular media. It originated in Soviet Russia, but can also describe the subversive strategies of punk: a subculture in which the T-shirt has always been prominent. The bold and transgressive slogans and images of early punk T-shirts, such as those by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren and with images created by Jamie Reid, fortified punk’s visual identity, subverting capitalism, conformity and taste.

T-shirts were hand printed, many were deliberately destroyed or treated to look as if they had deteriorated, while others were turned inside out or overhauled to appear unfinished and distressed. These practices were subversive and challenged the aesthetics and ideology of mainstream fashion. The DIY techniques were a means of shifting the production and reproduction of clothing and its messages back into the hands of ordinary people.

Subcultures frequently filter into the mainstream before exhausting themselves or expiring altogether. The early punk T-shirts have been worn consistently during different eras since their conception in the 1970s. Punk challenged the language of clothes, and although punk was rooted in political and social rebellion, for many it was also cited as a reason to dress up, have fun and cause mayhem.

Collecting

This section features Vivienne Westwood T-shirts collected over three decades by Lee Price, who considers himself not so much a traditional collector as a fan who has ended up as the ‘custodian of a collection’.

According to Price the T-shirt’s capacity to advertise one’s allegiances is an effective connecting tool: ‘I’ve made a lot of friends through bumping into people who were wearing the same T-shirt as me or wearing one I coveted. I’ve found Westwood’s T-shirts to be really great conversation starters’.

The collection means a range of things to Price, but also tells numerous stories: about him, about collecting and, of course, about the history of the T-shirt. The shirts highlighted in this re-created ‘archive’ trace the evolution of Westwood’s shops and signature graphics.

‘I can’t really remember when it all started … I was about 12 years old when I first plucked up courage and ventured into Worlds End, the shop at the end of the Kings Road – it was truly amazing. I was hooked. All I wanted to do was to work for Vivienne Westwood. I eventually did and it was an wonderful experience: the people, the history, the politics and manifestos and mostly the amazing customers, lots of them with their own personal stories about their first experience of buying Westwood, and so the collection began.’

With the Band

Before being the most visible indicators of musical fandom, band T-shirts were a working uniform. The earliest printed band T-shirts may have been those worn by concert road technicians in the 1960s, but it was not long before bands and their management recognised the potential for printed T-shirts to serve as promotional merchandise.

Firmly rooted in the history of the garment as both a promotional item and a personal souvenir, music T-shirts express loyalty and lived experience for fans of all musical genres. Beyond their power to connect people and music, band T-shirts have often been vehicles for the expression of social and political ideologies.

Whether emblazoned with word or image, original imagery or appropriated, band T-shirts reflect the aesthetic sensibilities of the band or artist, and their moments in time. Their aesthetic appeal, paired with their ability to inspire nostalgia, ensure they never go out of fashion. The recent trend for heavy-metal-inspired graphics sees the band T-shirt migrate from subcultural souvenir to luxury fashion item – and back again – as the designs are perennially reproduced and reintroduced to new generations of followers.

This section displays a selection of iconic music T-shirts, some of which have inspired ‘cover’ versions. Taking Experimental Jetset’s distillation of the Beatles T-shirt as a starting point, this display examines how artists and designers have creatively, and sometimes subversively, translated well-known designs.

Personsal/Political

The title of this section is borrowed from the much-quoted slogan ‘the personal is political’, which is associated with the student movements of the 1960s and second-wave feminism. The campaign, protest and charity fundraising T-shirts here also reflect some of these ideologies and illustrate how T-shirts have been vehicles for the communication of individual and collective messages. Originating in the anti-war and equal rights movements in the United States, these garments have crossed boundaries, with artists, designers and musicians often creating and wearing politically charged T-shirts to bring attention to global issues.

As a portable and visible ‘canvas’ for both individual and collective concerns, T-shirts are effective and relatively safe means for expressing one’s views. When worn in public they broadcast opinions, and when examined retrospectively they serve as historical documents, reminding us that many of these issues have not been relegated to the past. When produced to raise not only awareness but also funds for particular causes, these T-shirts confer an even greater degree of active participation on their wearers.

In this display, a particular focus is placed on T-shirts of ‘Pride and Protest’ originating from LGBT rights movements and HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns. Together they portray a vivid picture of local and global campaigns, and the fusion of social history and visual culture as embodied by this simple item of clothing.

Unisex

The T-shirt is often noted for being a unisex, utilitarian and thus an inherently democratic garment, whether or not it bears social or political messages. However, the T-shirt has also been associated with both male and female eroticism, in part owing to its origins as an intimate undergarment and the ability of cotton jersey to cling to the body. In this section, a selection of examples that question the T-shirt’s status as unisex are displayed. Taking a playful approach, it highlights instances where trompe-l’oeil has been used in T-shirt design to emphasise or obscure gender difference. Sometimes blatantly displaying what clothing usually intends to conceal, here T-shirt design is perhaps at its most irreverently subversive.

Ethics & Ecology

The T-shirt is a paradoxical item when it comes to dialogues around sustainability and global ecology. Despite their simple construction, T-shirts impose a significant strain on natural resources, primarily cotton and water. The increasingly vast quantities of the garments produced each year are bound up with unfair labour practices around the globe. Ubiquitous and inexpensive, the T-shirt is also regarded as a relatively disposable item, falling out of favour either because of its basicness or, at the other end of the spectrum, because something about it has gone out of fashion.

While T-shirts are lauded for their ability to raise awareness and disseminate messages of an urgent nature, their materiality itself is problematic. The debates around fashion’s potential to adopt sustainable practices and to encourage consumer responsibility are embodied by the designers and garments in this section. A variety of approaches to fashion sustainability as embodied in T-shirt manufacture and design are highlighted here, above all to emphasise that our consumer choices are social and political acts, and that wearing any T-shirt communicates on a variety of levels with regard to these issues.

Pop Goes the T-shirt

T-shirts are undeniably playful as well as political, and since their earliest days have been a way to promote not only products, but also personal affinities. T-shirts often use humour to grab attention and communicate, and they foster a sense of shared sensibilities, whether on the street or on the dance floor.

This section pays tribute to Pop Art, a twentieth-century art movement that embraced the optics of the everyday and celebrated consumer goods, using vibrant and memorable imagery to speak a symbolic language. Because T-shirts are casual and comfortable garments, they can also convey a relaxed attitude and are well-suited to the frenetic movement of the dance floor.

The T-shirts displayed here are nostalgic and ironic, and through Mr Smile, a 1960s’ paragon of good humour that first started life as an insurance company badge, we see how the symbols both evolve and stay the same: conveying mood and moving with the times.

Art to Wear

The T-shirt has served as a canvas for twentieth-century and contemporary artists. It is a portable, egalitarian and performative medium for art with a message. In this section, we see how a highly reproducible and accessible item has been appropriated and reinvented through the work of artists, blurring the boundaries between high and low, and between word and image. The T-shirt may be seen as the antithesis of the conventions and values of high art, yet it has been harnessed as a medium by artists. For the artists here, T-shirts are promotional, political, playful and powerful.

T-shirts are presented here as painting, sculpture or installation art, conflating the display practices of the art world and those of commerce. These T-shirts also embody relationships between art and fashion, and how both are consumed. The art T-shirt can turn its wearer into a living masterpiece. At the same time, wearing such a shirt points to the tension between the unique, unusual and valuable on the one hand, and the souvenir on the other. When artists create one-off or limited-edition T-shirts they elevate the everyday into something rare: a collector’s item for those in the know.

Fashion Statement

The T-shirt transitioned not only from underwear to outerwear, but from a utilitarian to a fashion garment over the course of the twentieth century. High-fashion designers began to incorporate T-shirts into their collections in the 1970s, with the rise of visible branding. The decade also saw an increase in high-street fashion, and youth-led marketing and design, ensuring the T-shirt became a fashionable wardrobe addition at all levels of the market.

The fashion T-shirt holds an ambiguous position between accessibility and exclusivity, allowing consumers to align themselves with a brand or designer visibly and relatively inexpensively. However, the ease with which the garments can be produced makes counterfeiting of designer T-shirts widespread. Not only copies, but also parodies of designer T-shirts raise questions about authenticity and value, and the expression of collective and individual identity through dress.

The designer T-shirt has also been a vehicle for fashion designers to express social and political views, extending brand loyalty on the part of customers to participating in the ideologies of those whose designs they wear.

This section invites original and reimagined designer T-shirts to share the catwalk, commingling fashion and anti-fashion sentiments, while highlighting the T-shirt as a garment layered with multiple meanings and, not least of all, a sense of humour.

This is not a T-Shirt

From a utility, to a hierarchical to a fashion garment, with or without images and slogans, the T-shirt has never failed to communicate. A standard, a banner, a manifesto, the T-shirt perennially proclaims, but this section of the exhibition shows examples of the T-shirt as it is evolving and transforming, through technology or into another status as an object or inspiration.

Among the recent pieces here are those that have been digitally designed, recycled, customised, connected to the internet, created in tribute and memoriam; exaggerated into incredible proportions and produced with technologies unimaginable a short time ago.

These works show that form is just as important as content, and that physically and conceptually the T-shirt is an important and ever-evolving communication vehicle.

Last Words

Work of art, political mouthpiece, advertising slogan, fashion essential: the T-shirt is a chameleon. In this final installation, we present another conversation made up of some of the T-shirt’s most resounding messages and most unanswerable questions. The T-shirt is also a paradoxical item: nearly universal in its appeal but at the same time incredibly personal.

Here we reflect on the tension between  of the general  and the individual, both through the medium of the T-shirt and of the exhibition. Curating, too, is a means of communicating, and relies upon selection and interpretation. Yet, some objects – slogan T-shirts especially, perhaps – speak for themselves.

The T-shirts on display are restless, offering up aphorisms that need to be activated in the public sphere. They are a collage of ideas from the themes, designers and time periods covered by the exhibition. They are offered as ‘last words’, but they serve more as a provocation, for visitors to carry forward these and other messages into the world. To wear a T-shirt is to be part of a never-ending conversation.


Want to learn more about the influence of the T-shirt? By photographing from the back Susan Barnettt investigates the time-honoured tradition of the portrait being of the face and tests whether body type, dress and demeanour can tell us just as much as a facial expression might. Begun in 2009, the project has taken Barnett to cities and tourist spots throughout the United States and Europe to record the revealing and ever-changing messages that can be found on T-shirts.


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