T-Shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion – A First Look At The Design Museum’s New Exhibition

Exploring the life of fashion’s most ubiquitous garment, ‘T-shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion’ at London’s Design Museum, is an ode to everybody’s humble old friend, and the mainstay of any wardrobe throughout time and space. A unique insight into the cultural and political influence of the most popular and affordable fashion item of the past 100 years, the exhibition is also a trove of some of the most fabulous archive era-defining pieces through to contemporary versions.

Split thematically, the show explores the power of the tee as a blank canvas for artistic expression across politics, music, gender and identity. From its basic production and the influence of evolving printing techniques, (apparently the first documented tee came around 500AD in tunic form), to its potential as a subversive agent of change and political confrontation, the t-shirt is presented as one of the most potent means of protest in the fashionista’s arsenal. Cue Westwood and McLaren’s Cambridge Rapist t-shirt – which hasn’t lost any of it’s shock value over the past forty years. Elsewhere, and particularly relevant in this merch-mad world of ours, a section exploring the lasting power of music’s relationship with the garment, timelessly mastered by the likes of Joy Division, The Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground.

Any exhibition on the t-shirt would not be complete without a mention of Katharine Hamnett and Wonder Workshop, who, with their instantly recognisable slogans caught the world’s attention and set the precedent for the likes of The Guerilla Girls to champion the t-shirt as an effective tool for change. There’s a nod to sustainability too, and Westwood’s 2009 Climate Revolution launch, as well as an exploration of the logo-mania that the t-shirt has seemingly bore the brunt of, via Vetements’ DHL release and the social media fuelled Commes Des Fuckdown shirts. What does the future hold? One in which the t-shirt is more gadget than garment apparently, because in this age where fashion moves at a blur, can anything keep pace like the t-shirt?

‘T-Shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion’ is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum from 9th February – 6th May

Images, from top:

Vivienne Westwood T-shirt by Marta Lamovsek

Vivienne backstage protesting by Marta Lamovsek

The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist. Design by Guerrilla Girls.Image by Boneshaker Photography