People have long made political and social statements by way of their clothing and there is a rich history of T-shirts as worthy canvases to evoke political change. From the 60s anti-Vietnam T-shirts that decreed "Make love not war" to MP Caroline Lucas' "No More Page Three" tee that she wore in the Commons in 2013, T-shirts have always provided a democratic medium for the disgruntled artist to vent on. In the 80s designer Katharine Hamnett turned the patriarchy in on itself by producing T-shirts that looked to dismantle the establishment rather than fund it. Hamnett's designs ("Choose life") ("Stop war, Blair out") were fighting talk. Even way back in 84, on meeting then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, Hamnett wore her anti-nuclear tee that read: "58% don't want Pershing" - a sentiment that much of the British public shared at a time when the stationing of nuclear missiles in the UK was a very real prospect. Folklore has it the T-shirt caused Thatcher to make a noise "like a chicken". Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, contemporaries of Hamnett, made political T-shirts that they sold in their store SEX on the King's Road. The sell-out design featured a swastika, an inverted crucifix and the slogan "Destroy".
As we turned the corner into the 90s, the dawn of Riot Grrrl movement took grip of the underground and Alanis Morissette released You Oughta Know but it wasn't until The Spice Girls arrived that girl power really went "kerching". You may have erased this from your memory, but The Spice Girls sold mopeds, flogged Girl Power mirrors, Cadbury's chocolate, Impulse, Pepsi, Barbies, Walkers crisps and Polaroid. Product placement aside, the group carried girl power with them on the sails of their leopard print parachute trousers and took it global. Whatever the end goal, the message was absorbed by young women with a feverish urgency. Finally we had our Britpop, our own Boyzone - famous women that looked and sounded like us, who, for a moment held the world in their hands.
The trend waned a little with ladette culture, but now feminism is a talking point once again and fashion has gotten firmly on board. With everything from Dior's 'we should all be feminists' tees to Topshop's slogan "FEMINISM" sweatshirts on the high street. Girls turning 25 now will have been raised on a market-friendly version feminism the first time round so while 2016 might be dogeared as the proverbial watershed moment for 4th wave feminism in the history books, it's not really anything new. From femvertising, to Miley Cyrus' camel toe and Emma Watson's HeForShe campaign, a majority-white, Hollywood-approved cohort of women have taken a somewhat sanitised re-telling of the word "feminism" pop - again. But at what cost? Have they let big business in the back door with them even if they're more covert about the endorsements they receive?
The reality we should acknowledge is that more 20-something women are likely to have seen Rihanna's Instagram post than they are to have read Adichie's text.
A word that previously whispered of burnt bras, hunger strikes and sacrifice suddenly became a marketing tool, leverage for Taylor swift and her super-model girl gang. In short the term was deodorised and flogged as a trend.
At the aforementioned Dior, a white T-shirt with the words "we should all be feminists"- a line taken from iconic Nigerian feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's manifesto of the same title- took centre stage. The item costs $710. Dior were quick to add that they'd be donating a portion of sales from the tee to Rihanna's charity, the Clara Lionel Foundation. We spoke to Bertie Brandes, co-founder of The Mushpit and freelance journalist, about Dior's T-shirt. "If fashion is the commodification of aspirational trends, which it is, this is a perfect example of a perfect product: aspirational in both price and politics" she explained. "That T-shirt is a hilariously sharp if unconscious depiction of how capitalism as an ideology will hijack literally anything in order to appear relevant." We asked her if the price-tag is any salt in the wound. "It's not negative because of the price. The fact that it's on sale is enough."
The pricing of the product is even less relevant when we look at what's happened to the T-shirt post-show. Rihanna has since Instagrammed a picture of herself in one, and it currently has 1.7million likes. The reality we should acknowledge is that more 20-something women are likely to have seen Rihanna's Instagram post than they are to have read Adichie's text. Worn on Rihanna the T-shirt travels, regardless of whether you recognise the words or not, into a new context. Rihanna is a multimillionaire; a black, liberated, self-made female artist donning a "feminist" slogan t-shirt and letting the world know. The association with Rihanna may serve to sway Generation Z's attitude towards gender equality as much as Hamnett's designs did in the 80s. While lip service politics might actually do more to promote apathy that to galvanise women's suffrage and in the long run chip away at feminine agency, Rihanna wearing the t-shirt offers us an important moment and a more challenging pill for the establishment to swallow. On Wednesday night, on the eve of IWD, Adichie, speaking at New York's Strand Bookstore in aid of her latest book, spoke about why she approved the Dior T-shirt. She explained to a room full of students that if "the goal of feminism is to make itself redundant, and to get there it needs to be a mass movement". Reiterating the need for more supporters, she stressed that "feminism is not an exclusive little party that you go to if you read the right books."
Feminism is not an exclusive little party that you go to if you read the right books.
Of course, without knowing the context of the quote, stand alone images of the T-shirt worn on the white model on Dior's catwalk feels apolitical, futile and at worst, apathetic. The execution is sedate, and with the motivations a little blurred. Do we in fact need more didactic slogans that discuss the issues currently baiting feminists now like, say, female genital mutilation, intersectionality, rape, forced marriages, abortion potentially being made illegal in the US and the pay-gap, might there be more reason to celebrate?
Ione Gamble, Editor of Polyester magazine, has a balanced view on fashion's appropriation of feminism. "The proliferation of the word feminism isn't necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that the conversation hasn't progressed." Ione, who founded Polyester in 2014 notes that by that time "the Meadham Kirchhoff spring/summer12 show had already happened, and Chanel had already staged their "feminist protest". We were all talking about the commercialisation of feminism already. While designers do probably believe in equality they often can't see beyond their own noses in terms of how they can force real change beyond projecting a 'message'. A message is really nothing if you still exclusively only use skinny white people and unethically made garments."
Ione believes that we have to hope that while the Dior T-shirt doesn't feel like it's "moving things on, it might capture the imagination of people that could. The generation below us are genuinely trying to use visual means to forge a real political message and change."
Maria Grazia Chiuri's intentions, whether to widen the fan base or fatten the shares, are irrelevant, in the hands of Rihanna and Adichie (artists turned cult figures) T-shirts like these, black text on a white T-shirt, like newsprint, can be as powerful as any headline and platforms like Instagram means they can travel as wide as a catwalk image now. The proliferation and oversaturation of the word means a loss of impact is inevitable, but that it might roll more easily of a teenager's tongue, in the playground, must be taken into consideration too.
Text Claire Burman and Nellie Eden
Image via Etsy