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The Evolution of the Slogan T-shirt: From Sex, to Politics, to Coachella

They've come a long way since the '60s.
By Courtney Sanders, 22 Apr 2015
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The Evolution of the Slogan T-shirt: From Sex, to Politics, to Coachella
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Coachella is colloquially known as ground zero for tastelessness in fashion, due to the festival goers propensities for wearing Native American headdresses and bindis. But last weekend, it became ground zero for tastelessness in fashion as well as everything in the world, because of one festival goer, who decided to wear a slogan t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, Eat Sleep Rape Repeat.

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Yep.

Slogan t-shirts have kind of gotten a bad rep. in recent years. Sure, Eat Sleep Rape Repeat doesn't exactly help matters, but before last weekend and largely thanks to fast fashion, people have been wearing annoying things emblazoned across their chests for quite some time now.

Slogan t-shirts are stereotypical talisman, and I immediately judge the wearers of them. Right now, I have particular distaste for people who wear this slogan t-shirt that says iPho instead of iPhone, below which Vietnamese utensils are displayed like iPhone icons, below which reads "Made in Vietnam" all of which is very confusing and dumb: is this t-shirt trying to celebrate Vietnamese culture, degrade it, or draw attention to the fact that it, and countries like it are being degraded all the time by Western corporations? I take the wearer of this t-shirt to be someone who thinks they're smart but has no idea about subtext.

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But slogan t-shirts don't deserve the bad rep. they're getting, because throughout history, they've been everything from declarations of political resistance, to the flashy start of fashion empires to the start of viral campaigns.

If you own a t-shirt printed with a Disney cartoon character, then you own a re-production of one of the first slogan t-shirts made – they were first sold by a London shop called Mr Freedom in the '60s. Humble, fairly unremarkable beginnings then.

Enter Vivienne Westwood, who sold t-shirts at her famous World's End store, SEX, that subverted political iconography into punk messaging. Take, for example, the most famous version which combined the swastika and an inverted crucifix below the word DESTROY.

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It was just after this, that fashion designer and activist Katharine Hamnett emerged, and invented the slogan t-shirt we know, love and loathe today: black text in a block down the front of a white t-shirt. It was in one of these, with the phrase, 58% People Don't Want Pershing, (referencing the fact that basing pershing missiles in England was an unpopular policy with the public), that Hamnett met Margaret Thatcher in 1984, which produced this photo, in which Margaret Thatcher looks very confused but ultimately polite:

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"Slogans work on so many different levels; they're almost subliminal," explained Hamnett. "They're also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They're tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself." Fiercely political, Katharine Hamnett lobbied against pesticide use and child labour in the fashion industry, which are still widespread issues today – ones we should take particular note of right now considering it's Fashion Revolution Day this Friday. In 1989 she undertook research into the fashion production industry, discovering 350, 000 people died from accidental pesticide poisoning in the cotton production industry alone. She then launched the CLEAN UP OR DIE campaign, to lobby the industry to do exactly that, and has been fighting for this cause ever since.

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Next up in the evolution of the slogan t-shirt, Henry Holland paid homage to his favourite designers via bright, tongue-in-cheek slogan t-shirts, going from fashion journalist to internationally renowned fashion designer overnight. I don't know what I was thinking, but I remember desperately wanting What a corker Karen Walker with all my being. Other Holland delights included Do me daily Christopher Bailey and Get yer freak on Giles Deacon.

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Most recently, Elle popularised a slogan t-shirt in the name of gender equality. The This is what a feminist looks like t-shirts were created by The Fawcett Society, the UK's biggest equality campaigning group. Elle collaborated with The Fawcett Society for their annual Feminism issue in 2014, reinterpreting the This is what a feminist looks like t-shirt and recruiting a whole bunch of celebrities, including Benedict Cumberbatch, to take selfies wearing one:

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While this campaign courted controversy over where the t-shirts were made and who was making them, it certainly demonstrated the power of the slogan t-shirt in popularising a cause.

Which is why, even though slogan t-shirts might be currently marred by one Coachella attendee, we should remember their historical power to insight thought, effect change and, you know, just be really funny.

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Liked this? Read these articles about the fashion industry:

1) The 8 Most Revolutionary Fashion Campaigns Ever

2) How to Get Involved in Fashion Revolution Day, Happening This Friday

3) Oxfam: Why Just Jeans Should Sign the Bangladesh Accord

4) MBFWA 2015: 4 Big Takeaways From Future Talks

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