Over the years and especially in the age of social media, fashion has become a conduit for making grand statements, be it social, political or just a platform for everyday expression. Fashion is now regarded as a social tool and when used well, it has the potential to change lives as well as how people see themselves as part of society and the many fluid roles we play in today’s dynamic world. Of all the fashion items, the most basic -“the T-shirt”, has become a medium of expression, a walking billboard guaranteed to go viral, if you place it on the back of the right person with enough guts and following, to spread the word.
Dating back to the 60’s, and quite strongly a movement in the 80’s, statement t-shirts have had an informative and fun role to play in politics, allowing a lot of us to say things, without actually saying them, either due to the fear of victimisation or simply choosing to let your style speak for you, and sometimes be the voice of others.
Zooming into the 1980’s, you get a great sense that this was when the slogan tee really came into its own with Katharine Hamnett’s infamous designs. “That T-shirt gave me a voice,” Hamnett said of the moment she shook hands with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while wearing a T-shirt that read “58% don’t want Pershing”, an anti-nuclear statement. That stunt made Hamnett’s T-shirts must-haves and the idea was copied everywhere. “I wanted to put a really large message on T-shirts that could be read from 20 or 30 feet away,” Hamnett told The Guardian at the time. “Slogans work on so many different levels; they’re almost subliminal. They’re also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They’re tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself.”
When Maria Grazia Chiuri sent her, “We should all be feminists” T-shirt down the Dior catwalk in her very first collection for the French fashion house in October 2016, she reignited the flame for bringing politics into our everyday wear. Since then, we have seen an influx of politically motivated fashion, internationally as well as on our own shores, and it has been such a fun trend to watch, if you are into that sort of thing- I certainly am. This trend has seen many brands suffer from acute effects of FOMO, and seen them churning out statement after statement, hoping they catch, and enjoy the same publicity as “We should all be feminists” by Dior.
Recently, Prada attempted a walk down this path with the Angela Davis T-shirt, a move that had the adverse reaction to what the brand was hoping for. For those reading this, wondering who Angela Davis is, she is a big deal, an American political activist, academic, and author. She emerged as a prominent counterculture activist in the 1960s, as a leader of the Black Panther Party and was highly involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
If we had to draw parallels, for the purpose of this piece, Angela Davis is as much a big deal to Americans (and the world) as Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela is to us, South Africans, (and the world). Back to the Prada…Prada just released a T-shirt featuring the face of Angela Davis as part of the brand’s SS18 collection, which is splashed with comic book heroines drawn by different female artists from the 1940s to today. The Prada “Angela Davis” T-shirt is selling for $500, which is about R5 581.49, in our local currency.
Of this campaign, which was presented this past September, Italian designer Miuccia Prada said she was “interested in someone who can be active and present today. … Just wanting to change the world. Especially for women, because there’s so much against us, still,” when the brand decided on the use of Angela Davis as a historical figure. People all over the world, particularly Americans, have called the brand out for inauthenticity, and misuse of the memory of Angela to aid the pockets of a brand that quite frankly hasn’t earned the rights in the lives of ordinary Americans to claim authentic understanding of the values Angela stood for as a black communist.
As a brand, you simply can’t climb the political and social consciousness agenda if you haven’t earned your ticket. Your ticket into this consciousness agenda can’t be bought today, now, because you feel like you want to produce a small batch of ridiculously priced merchandise in attempts to appeal to your niche market. Your ticket would have been secured by years of socially conscious work, or have your brand display an understanding and appreciation of the history and values echoed by the figure you wish to align to your campaign.
This is the problem with doing something simply to follow trends – from where consumers stand, it does not look like brands always know when they have taken their idea for mass appeal too far. For starters, many believe that as a black communist, Angela would have not agreed with the idea of Prada making money from selling a T-shirt that costs more than what people living in poverty get by with, monthly. Which makes you wonder whether the Prada team that thought it was a great idea to use the idea of Angela Davis, have ever read any of her work, or even know what she stood for as a human being.
What all this means is that while the statement T-shirt trend is a great tool taking a cause to scale, brands need to do more in aligning themselves with statements that are true to who they are, because consumers are wise, savvy, and can easily see through the bulls*hit.