T-Shirt Activism: The Political Power of a Garment

by Amy Rosner

As we walked down the streets of Ann Arbor, we couldn’t help but glare at a t-shirt that read “The future is female.” the polarizing black and white colors immediately caught our attention. The thick, bold font manifested into frustration towards the sexist past, and a sense of urgency for an equalitarian future. At this moment, we realized a t-shirt was more than just a garment of clothing. This t-shirt fulfilled more than just the utilitarian purpose of clothing an individual, and it challenged the notion that fashion was merely decorative and frivolous. Fashion has a voice and it is speaking loud and clear. Fashion is a vehicle for social and political change.

Designers used New York Fashion Week to promote social justice. Christian Dior was the first big designer to utilize t-shirts as a harbinger of change in the social and political realm. He revolutionized the runway with simplistic cotton tees and bold political sentiments. The Dior “We should all be feminists” shirts were a direct response to the turbulent political climate of 2016. Issues of gender and equality were swarming the air, and fashion was a site of protest and change.

Alas, the biggest trend of the modern era was born: T-shirt Activism. Following Dior’s lead, Prabal Gurung launched a series of shirts with loud political statements. His collection covered a wide range of social and political topics, ranging from gender equality, immigration rights, and abortion rights. Some of the most noteworthy t-shirts from the collection were “I am an immigrant, “Our minds, our bodies, our power” and “Revolution has no borders”. These t-shirts were a powerful response to the political administration and 2017 Women’s March.

Designers like Dior and Gurung set the precedent for fashion activism in 2018. Once again, New York Fashion week functioned as a springboard for social justice. Kerby Jean-Raymond’s “stop calling 911 on culture” t-shirt, is a direct response to racial inequality and black stereotyping. The t-shirt specifically references black individuals who were unjustly accused of suspicious behavior and then reported to the police. Ultimately, Jean-Raymond uses fabric to make a strong political claim: men and women of color should not be stereotyped.

Additionally, Jeremy Scott designed a t-shirt that read, “Tell your senator no on Kavanaugh 202-902-7129”. The fictitious phone number represents the phone number of a local senator; individuals were encouraged to contact government officials and express their opinions on the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh into the Supreme Court. Scott’s t-shirt operates simultaneously on two levels. the shirt inherently challenges the nomination of the controversial political figure, Brett Kavanaugh. Also, the t-shirt encourages activism. It encourages individuals to speak up and use their voice. It encourages individuals to challenge the established administration.

So what are the implications of this? What does this mean for the world of fashion and the world of politics? Gurung captured it perfectly when describing his new collection of activist clothing. Gurung stated, “I think what fashion has is a responsibility to provide not an escape, but a reality. An optimistic reality.” This quote encapsulates the power of fashion - a power that transcends T-shirt Activism and applies to the realm of fashion in entirety. Fashion is a representation reality; there is no distinction between fashion and culture. Fashion is a visual manifestation of culture. While fashion reflects on the norms and values of our society, it also has the ability to push back on these social realities. These designers are using their influence to push back on the political administration - to push back on the gender and racial inequalities that continue to permeate society. Fashion is a site of resistance. In the words of Gurung, fashion comments upon social reality, while simultaneously presenting an optimistic reality of hope, equality, and revolution.

As evidenced above, designers are blurring the once stark boundary between fashion and politics. Fashion may have always been a platform for social and political commentary. But it wasn’t until the modern era that we have finally embraced the revolutionary capacities of a singular garment. Fashion does really speak louder than words, and a cotton t-shirt can really have the ability to change the world if we would just allow it too. We have witnessed the birth of T-shirt Activism in 2016, and we have witnessed the continuation of this trend in 2018. So now the bigger question is, where is the future of political fashion activism going?

Brian Zhao