Nobody wears a T-shirt quite like Stanley Kowalski. That’s because nobody had really thought of wearing one like that until Marlon Brando played the character in the 1951 classic “A streetcar named desire.”
Until then, the T-shirt was largely considered an undergarment, acceptable at best as an unseen layer under a Navy uniform or a proper shirt. But Brando made it look so good that it inspired capable imitators like James Dean, who wore it under his signature red Harrington jacket in 1955’s “Rebel without a cause.”
Thus validated, the T-shirt became the world’s most ubiquitous garment and a blank canvas for expression. It can be unassuming or provocative, it can come from a five-pack or a couture collection, it can be sexy or ironic, it is at once democratic and elitist. “Luxury is the ease of a T-shirt in a very expensive dress,” Karl Lagerfeld once said.
The cultural significance of the humble T-shirt and its role in carrying social and political meaning is the subject of a new exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, “T-shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion,” on until May 6, 2018.
“It began as a discussion around one collection of Vivienne Westwood T-shirts, as she produced some of the most influential and disruptive designs of the 20th century, and that was the springboard to a wider discussion – it grew from there,” Dennis Nothdruft, Head of Exhibitions at the Fashion and Textile Museum, said in a phone interview.
Drawing from private collections as well as the archives of participating designers, the exhibition presents about 150 pieces and looks at the function of the T-shirt through history, collecting, the punk movement, protests, music, gender bending and the catwalk.
“We wanted to look into how a garment can communicate various messages about who we are, what we believe, the groups we belong to, and what it can say about our gender, about fashion, about art, through the vision of artists who appropriated it as a medium,” said Nothdruft.
At the center of the exhibition lie the Westwood pieces, which range from current offerings to the very early days of the West London boutique she opened with then partner Malcolm McLaren in 1971. A testing ground for collections as much as ideas, it cycled through several names – such as “Let it rock”, “Too fast to live too young to die,” and “Sex and seditionaries” – before settling with the current “Worlds End.”
“Westwood and McLaren were trying to shock people out of complacency, by being deliberately offensive through the use of symbols such as swastikas, upside down crosses and other disturbing imagery. She really deconstructed the T-shirt in the 1970s and she still does today, she produces T-shirts that are nothing but two squares of fabric that are stitched a bit at the top and bottom. She turned the T-shirt into a disruptive tool,” said Nothdruft.
The exhibition is accompanied by a display of photographs by Susan Barnett from her book “A typology of T-Shirts,” which includes photos from an ongoing project titled “In your face.”
“She started it in 2009, she takes photographs of people with the same setup, facing away from the camera and wearing a T-shirt with some sort of message. The idea is that as an artist she passes no judgment on her subject, but forces us to look at our perception of people based on a single item of clothing,” said Nothdruft.
The show also touches upon the ancient origins of the T-shirt, which evolved from medieval tunics, and its role in defining gender as a unisex garment.
It ends with a single, fully biodegradable white T-shirt. “But it isn’t a comprehensive history of the T-shirt,” said Nothdruft.
“It’s about creating conversations around the idea of it, what it can do and say – and hopefully our visitors can take that away and continue those conversations.”
T-shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion is on at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum until May 6, 2018.