Wearing Dissent: The Politics of the T Shirt

3 years ago by

Written by Lana Lopesi
Supported by Creative New Zealand


Lana Lopesi is the editor of Aotearoa Design Thinking 2017, a series of commissioned critical design essays published by Design Assembly and funded by Creative New Zealand.

This article is the third in a four part series that looks at design and the ‘Other’ that will be published over the course of this year. This series will consider the various roles of design and design objects outside of dominant design discourses.

Part One: Turning the Pages, is available here.

Part Two: Beyond the Frangipani: Pacific Designers on Pacific Design, is available here.

Dissent is something which has existed since, well always, and as far as I can tell it isn’t disappearing any time soon. While we may notice it increase at certain times — such as now in the Trump era — it is not something which never ceases. Dissent is essentially communication, it is an expression of disagreement and a rejection of power. As architect and theorist Lindsay Harkema points out, “Dissenters challenge assumptions and encourage discussion about the critical issues related to our rights as citizens. Dissent is channeled through political discourse and action with the goal of stimulating change to meet the collective desires of the people.” If we accept this view that dissent is communication then it has two crucial considerations: audience and legibility, which is where design comes in.

While the internet is a great tool for mobilising people, and sharing information with each other, the way that we ‘brand’ protest has not changed. For centuries, people have turned to visual communication as a form of protest and to voice dissent. The visual is immediate and so can be an extremely powerful means for disseminating messages of anger, empathy and solidarity.

While posters and banners may be the more traditional form for this kind of political design, one slightly more recent form which is an equally potent example is the T shirt. T shirts evolved when garment makers experimented with methods that would allow the fabric of long johns — underwear that men wore in the 19th Century —to stretch over the head and then snap back into shape. The garment increased popularity in 1904, when the Cooper Underwear Company ran a magazine ad announcing a new product for bachelors. This was taken up by the U.S Navy the following year when the quartermaster’s office specified that sailors should wear undershirts with no buttons under their uniforms; soon thousands of men became acquainted with the comfort of the cotton pullover.

In 1920s, the pullover was reborn under another name, the T shirt, thanks to author F. Scott Fitzgerald. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Fitzgerald was the first to use the word T shirt in print in the novel This Side of Paradise. After World War II, in part due to the US Navy, T shirts became even more popular and by the 1940s, T shirts had become ubiquitous amongst high school boys. Newspaper columnist Nancy Pepper wrote that teenagers owned closets full of T shirts and customised them with patches and fringe.

Closer to home, Identi-Tee: Taku Tihate, Taku Korero (My T-shirt, My Story) a project at Auckland Museum in 2012, which included the largest digital collection of tee shirts, picked up on the way that T shirts can reveal something personal. With a simple slogan, logo or image a tee shirt can speak volumes into how someone thinks and what they stand for. The team captured images and stories direct from various communities at places such as the Ngapuhi Festival, Polyfest and Pasifika Festival about peoples’ favourite T shirts. This highlighted the potency of the T shirt. Co-curator Chanel Clarke commented, “The depth of meaning attached to these t-shirts and their ability to trigger memories is significant. People attach a vast range of meanings to t-shirts; sometimes it’s simply humour, or it can be a way to express a belief, sometimes it is about remembering a place and time, or it can be about identity or unity.”

Popohardwear is one T shirt company which exemplifies the role of design in dissent. Co-Director and artist Siliga David Setoga calls it “the politically incorrect voice of the people”. The ‘popo’ stands for People Of the Pacific Ocean, the ‘hard’ is a badge of resilience and ‘wear’ names “the package that contains the product which is who we-ar(e).”

One of the most significant design challenges for communicating dissent is that people frequently do not want to listen to serious messages. We are constantly deflecting information, choosing what we want to engage with and what we want to ignore, and often it is all too easy to ignore messages which cause either pain of difficulty. Therefore, humour and parody is an alternative method for consciousness-raising, something which Popohardwear are masters of.

Popohardwear have tapped into humour’s innate ability to engage people, using slogans such as “Coconuts, harder than the real thing”, “Farg & Chet, immigration consultants” and “Ourtearoa”. In their words, “Popohardwear came about to fill various needs, first was the representation of Kiwi kids and the Americanisation of our next generation. I wanted to create a clothing line that speaks about who we are as Kiwis and Pacific Islanders, challenging the way we are perceived and fighting societal clichés. Popohardwear speaks about the time we live and taps into issues of identity in the hope of addressing some of these issues. I am not going to heal the world via T-shirts but I am gonna attempt to break some of the barriers that stop us saying hi to each other. It is my intention to empower the wearer, address the viewer in the hope of accomplishing a smile in the relationship of the two.”

While Popohardwear, is rooted in larger issues of (mis)representation, T shirts are also used in specific resistance movements. The iconic Te Mana Motuhake o Tuhoe ‘Remember October 15th’ T shirt was designed in 2008 by Te Mana Motuhake o Tuhoe in protest against the controversial anti-terrorism raids that the police carried out around Ruatoki, Bay of Plenty, in 2007. This T shirt was, and is still, worn as a visual protest in support of those who were raided, charged and imprisoned. The main feature on the T shirt is the Tuhoe flag, a design object in itself designed by Timoti Worrall, Riaka Hiakita, and Tamati Kruger.

A more recent example of this is the ‘E TŪ! STAND WITH STANDING ROCK’. In solidarity of the Indigenous Water Protectors from Standing Rock, Sioux Reservation, North Dakota fighting against the Dakota Pipeline Project, singer Tiki Taane started selling T shirts which read ‘E TŪ! STAND WITH STANDING ROCK’. Taane took the popular slogan “Stand with Standing Rock”, and placed it within a local context specific to Aotearoa and to Māori. The resistance at Standing Rock involves a long term occupation of the land which comes with a massive financial burden. So while these T shirts serve one purpose of mobilisation, they also exist to serve a practical purpose of raising funds for the cause, highlighting the monetary value that these objects of dissent can have over something like a poster or banner.

The permanence and everyday familiarity with the T shirt, makes it perhaps one of the most successful tools of embodied protest. Not only is it a walking banner, placard or poster, but declares your position in a way the empowers and mobilises the wearer.

“The t-shirt is the enduring physical manifestation that captures and evokes meaning and memory long after the fact.”
-Chanel Clarke



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