The beauty of a slogan T-shirt is in its simplicity. There is something compelling about wearing words across your chest because in effect you are broadcasting your personal thoughts, opinions, lifestyle choices…
An interview with Stephanie Talbot, author of Slogan T-Shirts: Cult and Culture.
I suspect the majority of people have worn a T-shirt at some point in their lives, even if it’s just as an undergarment, worn on vacation, to exercise or sleep in, or even worn as a leisure item at home. Certainly it’s an effortless piece of clothing. Typically, T-shirts have a versatile quality to them: their price point spans from economical to exclusive; sizing accommodates most people’s proportions; they tend to be trans-generational – unlike many other sartorial items which are targeted to a particular demographic. They can often be found as a staple in people’s wardrobe – a staple that can be customized, accessorized and fashioned according to one’s own sense of style, dressed up to look sophisticated or worn casually – they really are very adaptable.
The beauty of a slogan T-shirt is its simplicity. There is something compelling about wearing words across your chest, because in effect you are broadcasting your personal thoughts, opinions, lifestyle choices… how they are received is of course another matter!
I think slogan T-shirts resonate with people because when you are reading words across a body, on a screen or on a page, you are processing an idea or commentary of sorts. Throughout the process of producing the book, I found that most individuals had T-shirt stories of their own they were happy to share, or at least opinions about particular slogan T-shirts. Even if they were unfavourable opinions they still had reasons why those slogans troubled or infuriated them, and that was interesting to me.
People engage in slogan use for all sorts of reasons, but they nearly always come from personal reasons. Of course this isn’t always the case (for instance you may be asked by your boss to wear a T-shirt that promotes something you feel disconnected with, or someone gives you a slogan T-shirt and you wear it to exercise in as you have no investment or attachment to it so don’t mind if it gets blemished) but generally slogan T-shirts reflect the values of their wearer.
So a slogan T-shirt can be very revealing as it reflects someone’s interests – however serious or cavalier (and lighthearted forms of expression are just as valid as their more sombre counterparts).
I really like the idea that in the same way we use image manipulation programs like Photoshop to cut and paste, the slogan T-shirt borrows from different eras and diverse genres and themes.
Since completing the book I have seen so many new slogans that respond to news stories and societal trend – it’s endless! There are so many more perspectives, relationships and aspects I would like to explore that I want to write a sequel!
I conceived the idea for the book in the summer of 2010. The concept originated after I visited numerous bookshops and noticed that although there were many books available on T-shirts (chronological investigations as well as people’s own personal collections) there was no book solely focused on text on T-shirts. It occurred to me that there was a richness to the subject that could be explored rigorously and with a visual vibrancy that honours the wide spectrum of slogan use on T-shirts. The project launched with me making a list of slogans I was familiar with, designers that had worked with, and different uses of the slogan T-shirt, i.e. as a marketing tool, a branding device, a tourist souvenir; how popular phrases were appropriated and customized… Also, I assigned significance and value to the design and visual aspect of the slogan T-shirt: font choice, typographical size and colour, how the words were spatially configured on the fabric, the accompanying imagery, etc.
In essence, the idea was to explore the multivalent and multi-layered nature of the slogan T-shirt and to underscore contexts, subtexts, objectives and how slogan use serves different disciplines. I felt that this could be achieved through anecdotes, people’s personal recollections and cultural commentary – it was never intended to be a linear historical exploration, although naturally the slogan T-shirt’s trajectory through recent history had importance as not only have many of those T-shirts transcended time (as in the time of their original production and consumption) but also they become reference points for cultural and historical events.
Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
To give the book shape I knew I wanted the book to be interview-led and construct it as a total sum of two parts. Part one would be dedicated to commentators: experts in their respective fields who would critique or interpret a particular perspective or relationship between the T-shirt and a specialist theme, such as the slogan T-shirt’s relationship to high art. Part two would concentrate on those who designed slogan T-shirts: the designers. Naturally there’s a different dynamic when talking about your own work, it can be highly intimate, and in both instances (the commentators and the designers) what was utterly fascinating was that many of the interviewees used the T-shirt to talk about the mechanisms of their industries or the way they worked generally, and also they shared insider stories and vignettes about their own insider worlds … and as so often happens when writing a book or a feature, you start to inhabit your subject, so the more I explored, the more potential content material and contexts emerged. I arrived at 50 interviewees after contacting more than double that – it was a very organic process.
When was the first slogan T-shirt? What are the turning points in the slogan T-shirt culture?
I would not want to definitively comment on when the slogan T-shirt first emerged as a popular item of clothing, but certainly during the 1940s and 1950s American collegiate T-shirts featured the motifs of sports teams as well as the fraternities and sororities that students belonged to.
Around this time small businesses and diners also started to use the T-shirt surface to promote their establishments and products, and film studios and TV production houses also saw the value of publicising the names of forthcoming films and TV shows on T-shirts.
Traditionally, the T-shirt is a garment associated with youth and young people tend to be less inhibited in sharing their opinions, thoughts and lifestyle choices – the slogan T-shirt gives visibility to these allegiances. The emergence of popular culture in the 1950s and the rise of the pop band enabled youth cultures to broadcast the names of their preferred music artist or television personality thanks to the slogan T-shirt. It also allowed individual youth groups to distinguish themselves from their peers and to identify with others who shared their likes and dislikes. The slogan T-shirt is an effective tool in which to signal your viewpoints and interests to others.
Personally, I think that a pivotal moment was John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s use of slogans – they were truly revolutionary AND radical. Lennon and Ono’s commentary was one of the first times pop culture and politics were partnered by a slogan – their slogans reflected the disenchantment and concerns of the times (also, remember it was quite daring to wear a protest T-shirt during that era; wearing protest and anti-war statements hadn’t been done before and to some was considered provocative and shocking). Lennon and Ono’s slogans were and continue to be powerful and captivating and memorable … in three or four words they captured sentiments that the public were feeling. Their slogans have consistently had resonance with individuals throughout the years – how can anyone argue with the notions of ‘make love not war’, ‘war is over (if you want it)’ and ‘power to the people’? I really admire how their slogans challenged dominant politics, and I also value their disinterest in elitism, regardless of economic background or nationality. People can relate to Lennon and Ono’s objectives – their caption work is so iconic all over the world.
Besides Lennon and Ono’s use of slogans, I think there’s real value to activism (and political irreverence) on T-shirts – there can be a real integrity to them. In recent years the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett has used the slogan T-shirt very effectively with her political messaging: to wear one of her T-shirts is to align yourself with her beliefs, because her choice of words is so skilful and the sentiments so pertinent – her slogan T-shirts are heroic! I also really love the caption work of artists Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger as well as Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood (plus Vivienne Westwood’s work as a fashion designer in her own right). I think the Punk movement also captivated and influenced society with their DIY techniques and their subversive use of words. Lastly, the Occupy Wall Street protestors acquired a global reach with their slogan use, virally and also through print media – I loved that!
Why are slogan T-shirts iconic pieces of clothing?
Slogan T-shirts tend to achieve iconic (or cult) status when they transcend time and acquire an instantly recognizable quality, which often manifests itself when people recall when the T-shirt originated and the surrounding circumstances. Although iconic T-shirts do possess a certain longevity they are usually anchored to an initial timeframe.
The idea of group dialect, which can be associated with something being iconic or ‘cult’, is linked with the idea of collectivity and identifying others with similar tastes and often an insider knowledge. Cult T-shirts often, although not exclusively, start as a niche item and then grow… T-shirts lend themselves well to wanting to appear rebellious, or having a social conscience, or possessing an understanding of current affairs – or just wanting to express something playful or fun.
Slogan T-shirts express taste and therefore will always have meaning to the wearer – what we choose to put on our bodies (as civilians in the Western world, anyway) is usually voluntary. Fashion’s use of slogans is no different – I think designers often employ them very effectively and wittily… their play on words and self-referencing can have vibrancy and potency.
Finally, the popularity of any given slogan T-shirt changes with time because, for the most part, slogan T-shirts reflect trends, and while some themes and beliefs are consistent, the very nature of trends is that they shift and evolve.
What Next for the Slogan T-shirt?
The web and contemporary online culture hasn’t changed the inherent nature of a T-shirt – it has contributed to new forms of dissemination and has given us a whole new vocabulary that can be printed upon a T-shirt. However, slogan T-shirts are perfectly suited to today’s technologically-driven world, in as much as they are in effect soundbites and soundbite culture is prevalent and dominant – they are Twitter on a T-shirt!
Have you got a Favourite Slogan T-shirt?
The T-shirt I wear the most is Andy Warhol’s Bad, which was famously worn by Debbie Harry.
I like the simplicity of the words but also the graphic of the words and the association that comes with those words!
Also, Dennis Crompton from the visionary (and legendary, and incidentally my heroes!) 1960s architecture collective Archigram came to the book’s launch and kindly gave me one of their T-shirts that has red text printed all over the white surface.
Because it was too large I unpicked the sleeves and so now the way it hangs lends itself to the more informal look that I tend to wear. I have also worn it so much that it has faded from so many washes, so now it’s just perfect! I’m often customizing my clothes so that the fit and ‘look’ corresponds with how I like my clothes to fit on me… For me, the weight of the cotton, shape, size and silhouette of the T-shirt are just as important as the slogan, so even if I feel an affinity with the message or graphic type, unless the actual T-shirt itself is cut the way I like I wouldn’t wear it!
Freelance writer, stylist and creative consultant, Stephanie Talbot has studied visual theory, screen theory and architecture at post-graduate and doctoral level. She also muses about life not far from her doorstep in East London – where she lives with her beloved dog – on her acclaimed blog, www.thehouseofneonweather.com
‘Feel Good It’s Free’, Spring/Summer (2010), ‘Re-Issue’ Collection. T-shirts kindly supplied by Karen Savage. Model Amy Thompson
‘BOOM’ T-shirt. Photo by Richard Reyes
T-shirt ‘War is Over! If You Want It’, kindly supplied by MoreTvicar; www.moretvicar.com
T-shirt ‘No More Fashion Victims’ designed by Katharine Hamnett for EJF. T-shirts kindly supplied by the Environmental Justice Foundation in conjuction with their cotton campaign ‘Pick your cotton carefully’. Model Amy Thompson