Are slogan tees back in fashion?

One of the most subversive fashion trends of the 20th century is making a comeback.

Throughout history, fashion has been used to push boundaries and make statements. From the rebellious form-fitting dresses of the 1920’s flappers to the daringly short miniskirts of the 1960’s mods, fashion has always had the propensity to make social and cultural change. Whilst some fashion statements are metaphorical through silhouette and colour, other statements are more overt – enter the slogan t-shirt.

Slogan tees had banal origins as a way for companies to turn people into walking billboards by plastering shirts in logos. But they quickly became a tool to broadcast youth culture and more importantly, for protest.

By the 1980s, pop culture had the spirit of protest and defiance coursing through its veins and that began to be reflected in the fashion with the rise of slogan t-shirts. Fashion designer Katharine Hamnett became famous for her designs such as her anti-nuclear shirt she wore to meet Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in. The shirt read, ‘58% don’t want Pershing’, a reference to the overwhelming majority of Brits who opposed the deployment of American Pershing missiles in the UK.

Katharine Hamnett wore this slogan t shirt to meet Margaret Thatcher in 1984. (Getty)

“I wanted to put a really large message on T-shirts that could be read from 20 or 30ft away,” Katharine told The Guardian. “Slogans work on so many different levels; they’re almost subliminal. They’re also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They’re tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself.”

Around the same time, Katharine found herself chatting to George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley in a nightclub in London, who told her how much they admired her designs. The serendipitous interaction resulted in the boys from Wham! donning Katharine’s famous ‘Choose life’ shirts in the music video for Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. After the emergence of Katharine Hamnett’s slogan shirts, a pastiche of other provocative slogan t-shirts emerged throughout the 80s such as the ‘Frankie Say Relax’ shirts.

Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael donned Katharine Hamnett’s iconic ‘Choose life’ slogan t-shirts for their music video Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. (Getty)

In the 90s, the slogan t-shirt prevailed, but changed as trends did too. Rather than staunch activism, slogans on t-shirts evolved into the kind of irony, apathy and subversion that hallmarked the decade. This was especially true in skate culture, which flourished during this time. The DIY, counterculture characteristics of the skate community saw its members embrace slogan t-shirts with open arms. Skaters often donned shirts with facetious slogans and esoteric references to skateboarding terminology and culture.

Slogan t-shirts remained a mainstay in fashion well into the 2000s and were used to show off pop culture references, brands and nonsensical says like ‘Got Milk?’ and ‘That’s Hot’. In the 2010s, slogan t-shirts were once again employed for activism during the Time’s Up movement which saw countless celebrities don graphic tees with the logo on the red carpet.

DJ Adam Freeland sitting on a skateboard wearing a Free Tibet slogan t shirt, 1990's
Slogan t-shirts were also popular in the counterculture circles of the skate community in the 90s to project political-laden messages as well as facetious graphics. (Getty)

But then, the ubiquitous slogan tee disappeared. The rise of minimalism is partly to blame for the disappearance of fun, nonsensical slog t-shirts. As for the slogan tees that were imbued with defiant sayings and phrases, they’ve largely been replaced by social media activism where we can voice our opinions on social issues close to our hearts for our friends, family and the wider public to see.

However, it seems that fashion may be welcoming back self expression through graphic tees once again as cheeky, rebellious slogans have sneaked onto the runway. Recently, NY-based designer, Batsheva Hay unveiled knitwear adorned with words traditionally used to shame women such as ‘Spinster’ and ‘Hag’.

“It kind of felt liberating to come out as a hag,” the designer told Vogue of her decision to embrace the word. “It’s a bit of an F-you word. I’m just a fashion hag. But it feels good: The desire to fit in happens in so many ways in fashion – trying to look young and dress young is just part of it – and I just felt sick of it.”

slogan t shirt
Slogan t shirts and apparel have slowly crept back into mainstream fashion. (Getty)

Lirika Matoshi has also recently unveiled a collection of cutesy slogan apparel that has a nod to the unapologetic self-importance of 2000s fashion. Some of the slogans include ‘I’m so pretty when I cry’ and ‘I’m always right’.

As well as slogan t-shirts, it appears that statement hosiery is also a new frontier for fashionable self expression. European-based brand, Saint Sass, have an array of stockings that are embroidered with audacious phrases that were initially inspired by Cher’s famous ‘Mom I am a rich man’ quote from a 1996 interview.

After what has felt like a monotonous few years of dreary and homogenous fashion, it’s thrilling to see the revival of self-expression return in the form of slogan tees – no matter what the message is.

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