Blue Print

March 16, 2001

March 2001 T-shirts

The clothes that we perceive as the basics of every wardrobe were once faint glints in a dressmaker’s eye. The T-shirt is one example. More than any other item of clothing it is directly indicative of a person’s individuality, the graphic indication of a person’s inner life. From ‘Slipknot’ T-shirts on teenagers to Hackett on football hooligans, the words on our chest project an image of who we want to be. After years of logomania, fashion is seeing a backlash against the brand. Customisation, DIY graphics and small labels are all ways the T-shirt is being used as a vehicle for personal expression. It is not just the shirt off your back.

The T-shirt has come a long way in the past century. Its foundations lie in the quiet world of the American underwear drawer. It was originally used as part of the US navy’s uniform at the turn of the 20th-century. By the 1930s, American university sportsmen had adopted the plain T for their sedate games of football. However, it was war – the great motivator – that moved the T-shirt out into the open. American soldiers in World War II were finding it as tough to combat the heat of the Pacific as the bullets of the ‘enemy’. The lightweight ‘T-Type’ became a rather risqué but accepted part of the uniform of the average GI, often plain but sometimes printed with a troop’s details. Ex-GI Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth brought the printed T back from the war and developed his own screen printing press. Big Daddy, best known for his eccentrically customised cars, began to wear the Tees to underground car clubs and there’s was huge demand for them. The DIY T-shirt was formed.

If Ed Roth popularised the T-shirt within the American automotive underground, it was Marlon Brando that established it as a counter cultural icon. The ripped and sweaty T-shirt worn by Brando in 1951’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ not only launched his career but came to embody the image of the angry young man – sexy, violent and emotionally confused. With further appearances in 1953’s ‘The Wild One’ and James Dean’s ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ in 1955, the T-shirt defined a generation. The teenager was born and this was its uniform.

In 1965 Budweiser were the first to pick up on the T-shirt as a marketing tool, although it has been used as a rather unpopular promotional item in 1939 for ‘The Wizard of Oz’. By the end of the seventies, however, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren completely changed the agenda. Their T-shirts became the ideological focus for punk, fusing music, fashion and politics. As McLaren states in the introduction to Helen Walters’ ‘100% Cotton’, a forthcoming book that examines the innovations of T-shirt design, “The T-shirt was the basis of everything, everything else spun out from there.” Punk graphics subverted popular imagery and went for the jugular. Nothing and no one, from the swastika to the Queen, was safe. Exposing the hypocrisy of the establishment, punk T-shirts showed how fashion could be extremely seditious. Katherine Hamnett’s political bold and baggy Tees and stylist Judy Blame’s ‘Safe Sex Now’ were only a number of years away.

It was Shawn Stussy who invented the contemporary urban T as we know it today. A wave of companies have followed in his worthy footsteps in the past decade ­ Fuct, Pervert, Addict, Alien Workshop, Silas ­ creating a visual look inspired by skate and hip hop culture that has changed the way we dress. The Do-It-Yourself T-shirt exploded simultaneously with sound system T-shirts like Spiral Tribe’s ‘Make Some Fuckin’ Noise’, creating a vein of anarchistic imagery such as Large Salad’s ‘Public Nuisance’ and Common Knowledge’s ‘Subliminal Criminal’.

Yet despite the underground innovations of youth culture, the T-shirt is emblematic for the Americanisation of the globe and the adoption of the US’ concept of cool. In the past decade, American brands have been quick to jump on the bandwagon, using the T-shirt as portable advertising and cashing in on the consumerist hysteria of logomanics. But consumers are becoming too visually literate and ad educated to continue to wear ‘CK’ emblazoned on their chests. They want something a little more ironic, if the success of the ‘fcuk’ is anything to go by.

Raj Panjwani, of trend prediction and brand advisory company Sense Worldwide Ltd, explains; “The brand has developed into an attitude. People are no longer wearing brand names. Why should I be advertising something that isn’t necessarily particularly about me? So they’ll pick something a little more original.”

“Fcuk is a prime example of that.” Sense’s Tom Savigar elaborates. “They broke the mould be using a word that looks like fuck. It’s not literal, it’s not saying ‘Nike’ but something that plays around with the words in some way.” French Connection’s first ‘fcuk’ T-shirt was launched in 1998, shortly followed by the ad campaign – Trevor Beattie’s first job as creative director of GGT. The campaign, ‘fcuk fashion’, fell foul of Advertising Standards Authority but the public couldn’t get enough. The jumbled type of the follow-ups, such as “I you want’ and “Sea They’re In The It Doing”, all sold in the region of 250,000. Profits, for what was formerly a middle of the range high street store, jumped £3.5 million in a year. French Connection were keen to point out that the new branding encapsulated the whole concept behind the company, what they called “a desire to be original, distinctive and accessible”. They neatly packaged rebellion and sold it – very well, thank you – to middle England. However, tongue-in-cheek mass-produced references to naughty words are not the edge contemporary T-shirt design. The item of clothing has still retained a sense of sedition. Gerard Saint, co-founder of the London-based art direction and design company Big Active and editor of Westzone’s ‘One Size Fits All’ elucidates, “Anti-branding or ‘brandalism’ is really the new ‘politics for t-shirts.”

Brandalised T-shirts, inverting logos from Ford to Tide to Johnson’s Baby Powder, are still omnipresent. Shepard Fairey, however, take this a step further. The obey giant sticker and poster campaign – based on the image of a deceased 520lb, 7’4″ Russian wrestler – has become a global cult. His enigmatic images ‘vandalise’ every street corner and have even hijacking billboards, questioning how we relate to advertising, logos and consumerist culture. As Fairey has explained, his work is an experiment in phenomenology or as Heidegger puts it, “the process of letting things manifest themselves”. Fairey points out the processes of visual consumption, it was only a matter of time before it was printed on the T-shirt. Ironically, Fairey’s affiliated design company BLK/MRKT INC produces work for companies such as Sony Music, Levi Strauss and Pepsi Cola Co. Brands have been quick to adopt anti-branding imagery, hoping that some of its credibility will rub off. Yet, as Ian Christie of NY T-shirt company thisishowifeel points out, “If the t-shirt was simply a tool for advertising, soft drink and cigarette companies would be paying people to wear their shirts, instead of vice versa.” The T-shirt still remains a statement of personal expression or self-branding.

To some this self-branding is achieved by creating imagery and designs that rethink graphic language. As Helen Walters stresses, “the T-shirt is an absolutely invaluable medium for graphic designers who can use it as a cheap and effective way of getting their work seen by a wider audience. Many graphic designers have set up their own T-shirt companies as a happy sideline: The Designers Republic, Insect, Think 1. The ideas and the designs are what makes a T-shirt subversive.”

To Keiron Hurley, ex-director of the Acid Jazz record label and co-owner of the T-shirt company Red Dot, graphic design was only an influence as a platform to rebel against. He formed Red Dot with Charlie and Peter Caplowe, creating shirts with imagery that reflect his humour, from the graphic ‘Witness Relocation Program’ shirts to the photographic image of headphones hanging around the T-shirt’s neck. “Me and Charlie were drunk one night and it seemed like a good idea. The T-shirt is such a blank canvas. There’s so much scope to get your teeth into. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to put them together.”

To Gerard Saint, personal branding comes from taking the sloganed T-shirt out of its surroundings. “It takes on a new meaning, maybe signifying something completely different to what was originally intended.” he clarifies. ” ‘Proud to Support Operation Desert Storm’ is from the Gulf War, and was issued to American servicemen and their families as a moral booster. Taken out of context, it’s such a great anti-imperialist slogan.” Graphic art has been a weapon of propaganda and subversion expressing both official and unofficial attitudes since the 1960s. The T-shirt is merely one medium to express growing disillusionment with authority and the force feeding of brands. It plays with postmodernism’s focus on language and meaning, questioning signifiers with statements that are becoming increasingly obtuse or provocative. It no longer means that you really have been to Las Vegas or played with the Grosse Point Basketball team. It’s just a way to play with popular culture.

‘100% Cotton’ by Helen Walters and designed by Tim Fletcher is published by Laurence King in April at £19.95; ‘One Size Fits All” by Gerard Saint is published by Westzone in May at £25.