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A new ex­hi­bi­tion in Lon­don tracks the hum­ble T-shirt’s path to prime re­sis­tance.

Fashion (Canada) - - CONTENTS - By Ellen Himel­farb

A new Lon­don ex­hibit charts the political past of T-shirts.

T-shirts have al­ways been political. Even 100 years ago, when they were mar­keted as un­der­gar­ments, they were part of the U.S. mil­i­tary uni­form dur­ing the First World War. Dur­ing the 1950s, wear­ing them as out­er­wear or un­der a leather jacket, à la Mar­lon Brando or James Dean, be­came a sub­ver­sive act.

But to par­tic­i­pate in the T-shirt rev­o­lu­tion, you’d have to have been around in post­war Lon­don, when the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of ed­u­ca­tion pro­duced the ir­rev­er­ent art-school stu­dent along­side the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of silkscreen print­ing. “Silkscreen­ing ex­ploded in the 1960s,” says Den­nis Noth­druft, head of ex­hi­bi­tions at Lon­don’s Fashion and Tex­tile Mu­seum. “It’s a ba­sic process you can do at your kitchen table, and it be­came a main­stream medium for ex­pres­sion.” On Fe­bru­ary 9, Noth­druft launches his lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion, T-Shirt:

Cult | Cul­ture | Sub­ver­sion, fea­tur­ing roughly 200 sar­to­rial ar­ti­facts from the worlds of fashion, mu­sic and pol­i­tics and the in­ter­sec­tion of the three. It maps the T-shirt’s tra­jec­tory from non­de­script throw­away to marker of iden­tity, with rock mu­sic as a cat­a­lyst. The Who, the Sex Pis­tols and David Bowie make ap­pear­ances in a gallery ti­tled “With the Band,” which con­tem­plates T-shirts as ob­jects worthy of col­lec­tion by teens and other rebels re­ject­ing the sta­tus quo. “They were bill­boards align­ing you with a group of peo­ple say­ing ‘This is who I am,’” says Noth­druft. De­signer Vivi­enne West­wood dressed that co­hort from her Lon­don bou­tique, Sedi­tionar­ies, tug­ging and tear­ing the clas­sic T-shirt shape to cre­ate ten­sion. Just over 15 years later, Martin Margiela took a less political stance, de­con­struct­ing sil­hou­ettes and mov­ing neck­lines.

Be­tween them came Katharine Ham­nett, with her slo­gan tees for bands like Frankie Goes to Hol­ly­wood. Text T-shirts have gone in and out of style, but what makes this ex­hibit timely is that, decades since Ham­nett met then prime min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatcher wear­ing a T-shirt that de­nounced mis­sile de­ploy­ment in West Ger­many, we’re back to wear­ing our political ac­tivism on our sleeve.

Lon­don la­bel House of Hol­land’s Henry Hol­land, who once put out T-shirts teas­ing fashion de­sign­ers with slo­gans like “Cause Me Pain Hedi Sli­mane” and “Get Yer Freak On Giles Dea­con,” has do­nated two de­signs from his re­cent Brita col­lab­o­ra­tion that scream “Don’t be a waster” and “Sin­gle use plas­tic is never fan­tas­tic.” More than 25 years since Keith Har­ing’s “Ig­no­rance=Fear, Si­lence=Death” AIDS aware­ness T-shirts, Noth­druft is ri­fling through a new crop of LGBTQ shirts. “Yes, we’re still hav­ing these stupid con­ver­sa­tions,” he says. That’s not to say T-shirts have be­come any less an­gry or rock ’n’ roll. “It’s what you’re say­ing with the T-shirt that makes it rock ’n’ roll,” says Noth­druft. “There’s al­ways the po­ten­tial to an­noy peo­ple with what you’re wear­ing on your chest.” (T-Shirt: Cult | Cul­ture | Sub­ver­sion runs from Fe­bru­ary 9 to May 6, 2018, at the Fashion and Tex­tile Mu­seum in Lon­don.)

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