When Bad Slogan T-shirts Happen to Good People

Photo by Jean-Baptiste Burbaud from Pexels

We’ve all seen t-shirts emblazoned with nonsensical, grammatically incorrect, and sometimes downright inappropriate statements. Slogan t-shirts were once something of a statement, both politically and fashion-wise, that in today’s media-saturated world appear rather stale.

Yet, they live on, rearing their ugly heads every few years when someone in the fashion industry tries to revive them. The funniest ones are often seen on holidays abroad; a friend of mine tells me she once saw a child wearing the lyrics of Eminem’s Stan on a t-shirt while in China.

Another friend disclosed that her mum often buys her #GirlBoss inspired ones, many of which jump on that old Tumblr trend of incorrectly attributing inspirational quotes to important historical figures. Although her mum is well-intentioned, this seemingly innocuous t-shirt points to a larger problem in the fashion industry. 

Photo by Sophie Hennessy

A Harper’s Bazaar article, maps the development of slogan tees through the age, citing Maria Grazia Chiurri’s walk down the Dior runway wearing a t-shirt reading “We should all be feminists” in 2016 as the most recent revival of the trend. 

What Harper Bazaar fails to do, is critique the fact that Chiurri took the infamous words of acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adadie and used them to drum up brand publicity, not actually donating any proceeds to feminist organisations. In fact, the quote-on-quote “most-instagrammable” moment of the show, just generated further sales for Dior, while doing little for the feminist movement or for women (including those who actually make the t-shirts). In fact, years on, you can still buy the shirts on their website.

YouTuber Kirsten Leo hits the nail on the head in her video “Why your Feminist T-shirt Is Problematic”,

…once you look at what goes into making those fast fashion 5-dollar t-shirts, then you realise that there’s a huge amount of exploitation especially done towards women because the majority of people who make our clothes in factories are, for the most part, women.

This can also be applied to high-end fashion brands like Dior who often use the same factories as high-street brands, exploiting cheap female labour in the global south to make their products.

That moment on the 2016 catwalk did in fact bring about a brief revival of slogan t-shirts. Harper’s Bazaar quotes the designer Katharine Hamnett, who is credited with bringing the slogan tee to fame, on why these t-shirts may garner success.

“They’re tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself.”

However, Hamnett herself is well aware of the limitations of the piece of apparel.

 “T-shirts by themselves are all very nice but they achieve nothing. This is the danger,” she adds, “The only way to affect political change is to contact politicians and tell them you won’t vote for them next time unless they represent your views.”

It is safe to say that political slogans on t-shirts mean little without concrete action to back up the cause. They are an offline emblem of performative wokeness.

Politics aside, in general, slogan t-shirts (and many t-shirts with words and phrases) can be amusing. Henry Holland brought out a line of comical slogan tees a few years ago. In an interview, he said,

“My fear is that if fashion jumps on to a certain political message too hard, it’s in danger of turning it into a trend, I think feminism is too important an issue to become a trend, and so I would be wary of being too involved in a certain message.”

Slogan tees should be fun. The best one I’ve ever seen, and one that sparked my interest in this topic was worn by a student I taught a few years ago. It read: 

“Be more skateboard. Be more adrenaline.”

It’s a motto I’ve tried to live my life by ever since. 

While discussing my interest in bad slogan tees with a friend, she disclosed her mother-in-law’s propensity for gifting them. One reads “Guitars who I am”, perfect for her partner, who is in fact a musician, but sadly not a guitar (yet).

Image by Janna Westermann

I asked friends on Instagram what some of the worst ones they’ve seen are. My friend Janna sent me her “Porno King” t-shirt copying the logo of a well-known fast-food chain. She got it for free in a nightclub in Mallorca and actually wears it, only in an ironic way though. 

Would you wear a t-shirt with a political slogan? Are slogan tees cheesy? Comment below.

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