Title: The t-shirt: From protest to environmental activism
Keywords: t-shirt, activism, design responsibility, sign vehicle, identity.
‘The t-shirt has become one of the prime emblems or icons of modern life... It is a sign vehicle whose functions not only express selves, but the social and political fields in which it exists’ (Cullum-Swan and Manning, 1994:417).
The t-shirt is a key item in many people’s wardrobes, and has a long history as one of the most iconic symbols in fashion and culture. Indeed, the t-shirt is cheap, classless and globally recognised (Matheison, 2008). Low price points attributed to the fast fashion t-shirt make it an inclusive item, available to all. However, this in itself raises questions regarding sustainability. This paper will consider how, through its iconic status, the t-shirt can create opportunities for a more sustainable future. This will involve exploring the role that the t-shirt plays in encouraging individuals to become activists on a personal level. The following research question arises, ‘how effective is the t-shirt as a sign vehicle to promote environmental activism?’
Using research drawn from a high street garment archive housed in NTU’s School of Art and Design, the paper will detail how the t-shirt has evolved. This unique archive is called FashionMap, and spans from 2000-2018. The archive contains an estimated 119 t-shirts, and specific t-shirts which convey messages and signs through their design and typography will be analysed. Furthermore, the t-shirt will be examined as a communication tool, with a particular focus on protest t-shirts and brand activism. Primary research using focus groups will explore how participants respond to the t-shirt as personal expressions of courage, protest and change. T-shirts from the FashionMap archive will be used to stimulate discussions, and investigate how social justice impacts on a personal level. This paper explores how the t-shirt can represent expressions of activism and change, contributing to a more sustainable future.
Cullum-Swan, B. and Manning, P.K., 1994. What is a T-shirt? Codes, chronotypes and everyday objects. In: S.H. Higgins, ed. The socialness of things: essays on the socio-semiotics
of objects. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter, 415–434.
Mathieson. 2008. Protest T-shirts: Designer from the Cult Independents. London. Graffito.