The majority of today’s t-shirt-mongers would not understand “58% Don’t Want Pershing” – unintelligible even to those versed in decisive fashion moments from history. More likely, recognizable would be the eighties photograph of Katharine Hamnett wearing an oversized, slogan-bearing tee with Margaret Thatcher taken mid-handshake. Never mind “Pershing” or the alleged snarky retort that ensued from Thatcher, then-UK Prime Minister, after the political t-shirt’s intent registered; what’s important was how Hamnett expressed her nuclear weapon malaise. No doubt, it was in a way that youth culture does best: through fashion.
A token catchphrase has memorable qualities. It’s a rallying cry, identifier, or voice of dissent. Splashed onto a t-shirt, it works the same. That’s why it’s a youth mechanism for those too cool, too busy, too timid or indescribably too lazy to say on their own.
Or lately, in our social-media aligned reality, for when fashion’s on the mind.
Flip through a fashion magazine, shop online, log into your email or click through a fashion show slideshow, and it appears that all the fashion world has something to say. But rather than hearing it, you see it. “Squeeze This!” reads the Rihanna butt t-shirt that the furry-browed, red-lipped Cara Delevingne wore to the Glamour Awards. Slogans, mantras, you name it, are worn so often that even the ultimate in paradoxical fashion house twists: “Comme des FuckDown” –no longer draws the same Instagram following it used to.
“The original thinking was that it would become seminal,” Hamnett told BBC back in 2005. Decades ago, in a way, it was. “Choose Life”, “Vote Tactically” and all the rest of Hamnett’s t-shirt incarnations – along with Vivienne Westwood’s earlier punk offerings, were the sartorial makings of political and social activism. To this day, Westwood’s Red Label is a talking piece for climate revolution. Now, whether the label’s “Buy less, choose well, make it last” motto bolsters this spring’s “Climate” t-shirt sales is hard to say. Either way, she’ll still opt for public transport (one lucky photographer has spotted her riding the London underground after shows).
If Jun Takahashi is as big a Westwood admirer as his Seditionaries collection suggests, then it best explains Undercover’s sophisticated punk riffs and thought-inducing slogans for spring. The phrases are hard to ignore. Then again, LED displays of “Silence Yourself” and “Rage” on PVC tops usually are. The theorists, those like Ludwig Wittgenstein, would argue that that just as clothing is a bodily disguise, language is a disguise for ideas. Perhaps the word pairings and a host of interesting anagrams on accessories, from “Cruelty/Splendor” to “Dogod”, are Takahashi’s reflection of the ambiguity and irony in life.
Or is there some other reason? As some rush to say, slogan fashion makes for compelling social media updates. “Slogan tops look good in selfies!” says Peter Henderson, Mr. Porter’s senior fashion writer. The year of the selfie, he tells me, according to Jezebel and publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary, is upon us.
When character count has its limits, nothing quite says “raunchy” like “Giraunchy.” There’s no need for further explanation; slogan fashion says it all. Years ago, a spelling blunder, like the one where “Chanel” erroneously turns to “English Channel”, meant that your knockoff purchase in Chinatown was a poor one. Better try the guy at Canal and Mott next time, at least he has 2-for-1 deals. Now, tongue-in-cheek wordplay in all its innumerable forms is socially viable. Why? Namely, the association ascribes to luxury fashion world without submitting to it. How’s that for being louche and irreverent?
Despite a trade-off between politics to irony, the change in direction begs another question: Is it good for fashion?
The self-professed cynics would argue against it. Says Henderson, “Henry Holland completely killed the vibe for good in the mid-2000s with all that ‘Cause me Pain Hedi Slimane’ stuff.” He much prefers the Hamnett t-shirts of ‘yore (not the recent re-issues, he notes) because it worked within the context of time. “But designers,” adds Henderson, “are always going to wheel out slogans in some form every now again because there just isn’t that much you can with fashion, really.”
Not that Raf Simons embroidered slogans over hyper-floral dresses at Christian Dior for the same reason. A newly defined “Primrose Path,” also suggested in the pairing of bustiers and toxic-print pleated skirts, seems more likely. Or does it?