A new exhibition collates some of the last century’s most recognisable designs.

(LEFT) Act Against Aids, 1993
(RIGHT) Breasts vest, 1969

Act Against Aids, 1993
Breasts vest, 1969

“My first band T-shirt was from my first rock concert, The Who when I was 11. I can’t remember what the T-shirt design was like, but I remember the concert and being proud to be a ‘hippie’ in junior high in 1988,” Jenna Rossi-Camus writes me over email. “Recently I re-purchased a Nirvana T-shirt I used to have. It’s the one that was very famously worn by Kristen McMenamy in US Vogue in 1992.”

If you believe the hype, the T-shirt is about as humble as they come: simple in its nature and basic by design, it provides the ultimate canvas for any number of messages, whether that be the name of your favourite band or a nod to your sexuality. Such is its be-all quality, it has long been subject to exploration, both in book form and via IRL showcase. This spring a new exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, co-curated by Rossi-Camus, hopes to add a further component to the item’s narrative: T-shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion.

“The aim is to inspire dialogue and to empower visitors to interpret the material in their own ways – in keeping with the spirit of the slogan T-shirt,” Jenna explains of the show. “But, curatorially it is also a sort of manifesto. I feel very strongly that fashion exhibitions might be received not only as celebrations or showcases of design excellence and history, but as more open-ended and critical ways of displaying and interpreting clothing. There are many books about T-shirts that can teach you many things – but the exhibition is more than a book in space.”

Boasting designs by and incorporating the work of Vivienne Westwood, House of Holland and Barbara Kruger, the exhibition is divided into 11 sections, features over 100 pieces and covers a period of 50 years.

Exploding Mickey T-shirts BOY BLACKMAIL, 1975 Photo: Derek Hutchins Copyright: Dove White Courtesy of Paul Stolper Gallery

Exploding Mickey T-shirts BOY BLACKMAIL, 1975 Photo: Derek Hutchins Copyright: Dove White Courtesy of Paul Stolper Gallery

How and when was T-shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion initially thought up?

The idea for the exhibition evolved from an intention to showcase the T-shirt collection of an avid Vivienne Westwood collector – Lee Price – as a starting point for looking into the resonance of punk era fashion and its overlap with politics and design. Revivals and re-appropriation were evident in the collection, and it became a way to begin to map the links among ideas that T-shirts have promoted and those that they have opposed. Ultimately the exhibition became broader in its scope – but punk era T-shirts are the physical starting point and Lee Price’s Westwood collection is housed as central to the display. The exhibition design reflects two sides of this multi-faceted story. The punk T-shirts are presented as “agitprop” but also “archival”; they serve as a point from which we can look back and forward in time at how the T-shirt has been powerful and accessible.

Talk me through the show’s title.

The title is of course meant to draw attention – and to use the power of words conceptually and visually just like slogan T-shirts do – but each of the three [cult/culture/subversion] were examined as attributes of the T-shirt. They are like three qualities that all T-shirts might be seen to have in different proportions. Also putting these words together and applying them to a fashion item opens up a way to think of how they have immediate connotations but also deeper meanings. For example, “cult” might conjure thoughts of dangerous groups or ideologies, but really any time we show ourselves as a fan of something by wearing a T-shirt we are taking part in a cult mentality.

What were the biggest surprises or most interesting elements of curating the exhibition?

Although we are quite explicit in saying the exhibition is not a comprehensive history of the T-shirt, our research led us to seek milestones in the history and to locate material artefacts that might express some of those earlier (than 1970s) stories. It was illuminating to me to notice that although the history of the T-shirt has been somewhat well-documented in the past 30 years or so, that it is still being retrieved. What I learned from the very beginning which was humbling, was that it is a story that couldn’t possibly be told by one exhibition. And I was truly surprised by some of the mysteries and moments of uncertainty about what or when something occurred – there are sometimes conflicting claims made by different sources. I was surprised to learn that although the first film promotional T-shirt is generally recognised to have been made for the Wizard of Oz, none exist and we were unable to even find any pictures of one.

(LEFT) Press Association, Thatcher meets Hamnett
(CENTRE) All Over Trump
(RIGHT) BRIXTON MARKET Wild Things, 1971 Photo: Ahmet Francis Copyright: DoveWhite Courtesy of Paul Stolper Gallery

Press Association, Thatcher meets Hamnett
All Over Trump
BRIXTON MARKET Wild Things, 1971 Photo: Ahmet Francis Copyright: DoveWhite Courtesy of Paul Stolper Gallery

And what led the curatorial direction to organise the exhibition into the 11 sections?

A thematic rather than chronological approach seems natural for this topic. We wanted to show themes and their cross-currents while also mixing up different time periods. A guiding principle for me was to think of the T-shirts as ideas that ended up on the same bus serendipitously and then started a conversation. There are references to other themes built into some of the themes. It was both intentional and inevitable, and I hope that noticing them will be a source of enjoyment for visitors.

Was there a particular area you found most interesting during your research?

The music and band T-shirts required the most research and hardest decisions. Musical tastes vary and we wanted to feature some bands who pioneered the promotional T-shirt, and also highlight some of the lesser known stories – and people – behind those designs. In the bands section, we also look at “Covers” – versions of band T-shirts inspired principally by Experimental Jetset’s “John & Paul & George & Ringo” T-shirt.

And in terms of era, did you discover a preference?

I’d have to admit a nostalgia factor influencing my delight at T-shirts from the 1990s in all the sections. I got to look again at T-shirts from the period with a relative distance and to appreciate them as cultural and design artefacts rather than as signifiers of what I was or wasn’t “into” as a teenager.

Vivienne backstage protesting by Marta Lamovsek

Vivienne backstage protesting by Marta Lamovsek

How conscious were you of the exhibition’s timing during the curation process, in terms of making it relevant to 2018?

Relevance to the present is always central to my approach to presenting fashion history in exhibitions. In this case, the themes and messages were sometimes overwhelmingly relevant. So many topical issues have been addressed by T-shirts in the past in times of conflict, strife or of triumph. It was reassuring to revisit this in the past months. And it also felt like it gave the project a greater responsibility to honour these objects – that really are about honouring ideas and people.

It was also, for me, a way to believe in T-shirts again. Right before I started work on the project I was finding myself really jaded about slogan T-shirts and their ubiquity. I still have reservations about some of the ways that slogans and T-shirts are manufactured and marketed – but actually it is up to the people who wear them to make them matter. In the fashion industry right now, the T-shirt is being put on the front lines again. Can it still be “avant-garde” and authentic? I want to think it can. I just hope that people really consider what they buy and what it’s saying and that they keep their T-shirts for a long time.

Finally, on a more personal note, when did you initially realise the potential of the T-shirt as a platform to express oneself?

I come from a politically active and creative family; wearing T-shirts with messages or strong images was part of my growing up. My father’s family also run an Italian-American general store in New York’s Little Italy – so souvenir/cultural pride T-shirts (Like “Kiss Me I’m Italian”) were some of my earliest clothing memories. But more recently, after decades of dressing boldly, I had an encounter that made me realise how powerful an intervention in public space wearing a T-shirt can be. I was wearing a Westwood tits top on the London Overground and two young boys – maybe 10 or 12 years old – looked at me and then I saw their eyes get big with utter surprise. One turned to the other and said – “I think my childhood just ended on this train.”

T-shirt: Cult – Culture – Subversion is at Fashion and Textile Museum until 6 May.

Zoe Whitfield

Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related →