Fashion has always been political, and the protest tee has been a staple in closets around the world for decades. Vivenne Westwood used tee shirts to promote anarchy and spark a British punk rebellion in the 70s and 80s. Katherine Hamnett pushed political agendas and advocated for worthy causes with bold block lettering. If first impressions are everything and clothes tell a story, shirts emblazoned with slogans are a way to let the world know what you stand for without saying a word.
Like any other popular clothing item, protest tees were always due for a comeback. But their recent revival says more about our social and political climate than it does about cyclical fashion trends.
“It was just this moment of like, ‘Wow, fuck you.’”
That’s how Amanda Brinkman explains her inspiration for the most visible protest tee of 2016. Brinkman’s “Nasty Woman” shirt came after the art curator decided to vent her frustrations during the presidential debates by experimenting with her newfound love of graphic design.
Brinkman took the slur Donald Trump directed towards opponent Hillary Clinton and put her own cheeky spin on it – wrapping the insult in a pink heart on a plain white tee.
“For me, that was an even bigger fuck you,” she says. “I’m going to make this fun and sweet and you can go fuck yourself.”
After posting the design on her shop Google Ghost, Brinkman shared it on Instagram, and woke up to over 20,000 emails and the news that the story of her shirt had been picked up by New York Magazine and Teen Vogue. She’d officially gone viral.
This story isn’t particularly uncommon in the Trump Era. From Etsy shop owners to sellers on sites like Redbubble and Tee Spring, savvy designers and budding brands have been capitalizing on the outrage our president stirs up.
Redbubble CEO Martin Hosking notes that the website currently houses more than 33,000 Trump-related images on retail items — with covfefe causing a recent spike in that number.
“About 40% of all sales come from works that are less than one year old,” he says. “Political memes are one of the drivers of sales.”
Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychology expert at the Fashion Institute of Technology says that the polarization our president stirs up has left people more comfortable sharing political views.
“People are being a bit more fearless with their political decisions,” she says. “They also want to belong, to have a sense of community. If they wear a shirt that says, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ they want people to know, ‘Hey, I belong to this community.’
But these opportunities to connect to like-minded people and share allegiances don’t come without a cost.
Catwalk Campaign Promises
This year, New York Fashion Week felt more like a political demonstration than the usual parade of silks, chiffons, and cashmere we’ve been treated to in the past. Instead of gilded gowns, oversized coats and velvet pantsuits, models walked down the aisles wearing t-shirts that read “People Are People” and “Feminist AF.” It all seemed well-timed to our current political moment, but the feminist resurgence in haute couture actually began a little earlier.
In 2014, Karl Lagerfeld staged a faux protest rally for Chanel’s Spring 2015 runway show. The event featured influencers like famed model and Lagerfeld muse Cara Delevingne brandishing posters that read “Women’s Rights Are Alright” and “Ladies First.” Then, in 2016, Maria Grazia Chiuri presented her debut Dior collection in Paris. The show marked the first time a woman had led the design team for the fashion house and Chiuri chose to use her inaugural outing by taking a definitively feminist stance – having models wear tees affirming the “We Should All Be Feminists” declaration made by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during her famous Ted Talk.
Both designers were touted as revolutionary and critics and fans alike praised their bravery and boldness on social media. But the history of the brands and their practices made these quasi rebellions feel more like publicity stunts. Lagerfeld has made headlines before for his misogynistic views. He’s fat-shamed artists like Adele and stated his belief that curvy women don’t belong on the runway. He’s also been accused of cultural appropriation by sending models down the catwalk in Native American headdresses. Similarly, Dior, a brand that scored a 0 on Fashion Revolution’s 2017 Transparency Index after failing to offer any information about their supply chain or production practices to consumers, marked their feminist apparel at $700 per shirt. Months after the shirt hit the runway (and got some flak from fans for its price tag), Dior announced they’d be partnering with Rihanna to donate a portion of the proceeds from sales of the tee to the singer’s charity. It came off like a half-measure, at best.
With a muddled history of co-opting activism, this year’s designers at NYFW had the opportunity to, as ethical fashion activist Amy DuFault says, “quit bullshitting us.” The writer and communications director at Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator, saw the protest tee trend take off after Trump’s inauguration during the historic Women’s March in D.C.
“It’s this perfect storm between the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, the climate march…” she says. “It’s been a hailstorm of people being pissed and every time someone’s angry, they put it on a tee shirt and they don’t ask how the tee shirt is made.”
DuFault decided to investigate where the shirts for the march were coming from by emailing friend and founder of Manufacture New York, Bob Bland. Bland had designed her own Nasty Woman tee for the Women’s March and DuFault wanted to know where the official shirts for the historic event were being produced. A company called Bonfire was in charge of providing the tees and, according to a Broadly article, they were asked to ensure the shirts were made in the U.S. They decided to go with American Apparel, Bayside Apparel, and Royal Apparel inventories, but that presented even more problems because American Apparel had recently been bought by Gildan, a Canadian manufacturer that’s been accused of mistreating its workers in its factories in Haiti and Honduras. The company provided “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to several NBA players protesting the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown three years ago before these accusations of labor violations came to light.
When feminist slogans started appearing on the runways in New York, DuFault snapped into action again. She contacted designers like Christian Siriano who built his show around a “People Are People” slogan and Prabal Gurung who endorsed the motto “The Future Is Female” with his line. Plenty of the designers announced that they’d be donating sales from their shirts to charities like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, but DuFault wanted to know where the clothes were coming from.