A new Yorkshire exhibition celebrates the T-shirt in all its statement-making glory. Stephanie Smith looks at the many facets of the not-so-humble item.
Every T-shirt tells a story, from a plain white tee to a ripped, slogan-bearing number with a message that demands attention.
And that story is all about us, the wearer. When we put on a T-shirt, we are showing the world who we are, what we are up to and how we are feeling about ourselves and our universe. Basic chic black, classic laundered white, maybe a punchy bright for a colour pop, or a serene pastel, or utility grey … or the washed-out shade of the favourite old tee we still reach for when we need to feel secure, grounded, more ourselves.
Through T-shirt slogans, images, decoration and embellishment, we can proclaim our love for our favourite musicians and films, show our support for social and political movements, protest, mark and celebrate mass events, and identify ourselves as proud members of our educational establishments and workplaces. A T-shirt has the power to define us, if only for a day.
The T-shirt is celebrated in a new exhibition at The Civic in Barnsley. T-Shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion gathers together for the first time some of the most recognisable and wearable designs of the last century, providing a very special insight into this most ubiquitous, affordable and popular garment of the last century.
Bringing together fashion, art, music, politics and technology, it’s a project that began life three years ago, based on an original idea by The Civic exhibitions curator David Sinclair, following his conversations with friend, Lee Price, who used to work for Vivienne Westwood in Leeds. Lee’s collection of Vivienne Westwood T-shirts is now the mainstay of the exhibition, which grew in size and reach when The Civic teamed up with The Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey to develop the idea.
As issues of gender identity and fluidity continue to be debated and explored, it is fitting that the T-shirt – arguably the first and still the most popular unisex garment – should be treated to this focus.
David says: “It’s completely unisex and so ubiquitous. We’ve all got one in the wardrobe, every man, woman, child – it’s just there.
“They just become an integral part of your wardrobe, whether we collect them on purpose or just save them. I’ve got a couple of T-shirts that are 20-plus years old, that I never wear any more but are just there because they remind me of a certain time or being a student.”
There are more than 180 tees in the exhibition, alongside photographs and archival material, examining its evolution from an undergarment for labourers in the 19th Century, through its first written reference in F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise and onto hitting iconic status in Marlon Brando’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
“We were very conscious not to do the history of the T-shirt, because it’s a massive subject,” David says. “That’s why we have split it into 12 sections and highlighted the politics and the ecology and what people do with T-shirts, the political messaging.”
He points out that, especially in the days before social media, wearing a T-shirt was a way in which people could associate themselves with their “tribes”, identifying with bands and with causes.
The Basic section tracks the evolution of T-shirt textiles and technologies through to mass production, including printing, embroidery and digital practices. Agitprop explores the T-shirt as a tool for change, using slogans with an explicitly political agenda. Vivienne Westwood features here and in the Collecting section, through the private archive of Lee Price, exploring punk and the tee as a tool for connecting with similar minds.
With The Band examines the role of T-shirts in music, examining how instantly recognisable designs, for Joy Division, The Rolling Stones, The Velvet Underground and Nico and The Ramones, were re-purposed in tribute to other artists or movements. Personal Political travels the works of designers including Katharine Hamnett and Wonder Workshop, including instantly recognisable slogans such as ‘Stay Alive in ‘85’, ‘No More Page Three’ and Keith Haring’s ‘Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death’. Historic Pride T-shirts create a visual timeline of campaigning for equal rights.
Unisex, which studies the T-shirt traversing traditional gender roles, is David’s favourite. “It’s got a lot of humour in it,” he says. “We’ve worked with a designer called Philip Normal and he reinvents She-Ra and He-Man characters. ”
The other categories include Ethics and Ecology; Art to Wear; Pop Goes The T-shirt looking at the tee’s place in the rise of grunge and club culture; Fashion Statement examines its role in the designer world; and finally, Not a T-Shirt features deviations from traditional tees.
Alongside the exhibition, T: A Typology of T-Shirts features photographs by Susan Barnett in which tees are worn backwards, projecting the subject’s identity solely through the images on their backs.
David days: “There’s a lot in it for everyone and I think that’s important with curation at the moment. You have to be relevant to a bigger audience rather than a specific audience.”
After Barnsley, there is interest in taking the exhibition to Rotterdam and to Sweden. “Hopefully, it will travel and we will get the Yorkshire brand there. I can honestly say I think it’s the best exhibition I have ever curated.” David would like to encourage visitors to come along wearing their own favourite T-shirts to be snapped for social media.
“The humble white T-shirt has come a long way since the days of Brando, Dean and Wayne,” he says. “It has been controversial, sexy, political, ironic and just plain cool. Who knows where it’s going to go next?”
The T Shirt: Cult | Culture | Subversion is at The Civic, Barnsley, to September 22, 2018. Curated and organised in partnership with Fashion & Textile Museum, London, it’s art of the Great Exhibition of the North 2018 programme #GetNorth2018
For more information and to book visit www.barnsleycivic.co.uk or call the Box Office on 01226 327000.