Protest T-Shirts Are as Vital Now as They've Ever Been

A short history of fashion's most honorable item

June 9, 2020 10:11 am
eric garner protest t-shirt
A woman wears a T-shirt featuring a picture of Eric Garner at a rally in Brooklyn
Jewel Samad/Getty

T-shirts have always played a prominent role in protests, from the ’60s Civil Rights movement to today’s marches against police brutality and systemic racism across the nation. And as this current round of demonstrations continues across the country, designers and independent brands have begun to create shirts that deliver a strong message against racism and police brutality while giving back to various organizations on the frontlines of the fight. 

This is by no means a new phenomenon; T-shirts have a long history of use by politicians, organizers and activists to amplify their message. The first political T-shirt was made for the campaign of the Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey’s failed 1948 presidential run, emblazoned with his face and the message “Dew It With Dewey.” Fast forward to today, and nearly every campaign or movement that is even vaguely politically motivated has a tee or two to help them raise funds.

The T-shirt’s humble beginnings date back to the late 19th century, when they were being produced as undershirts for U.S. Navy sailors. By the end of World War II, it was a military staple adopted by civilians and returning servicemen. As T-shirts started to break through as more than just an undergarment, they began to bear messages, graphics and logos, including some that skewed political. In 1969, students demonstrating at Harvard — some in favor of the creation of a Black studies program — were seen garbed in T-shirts screen-printed with red fists or the word “strike” stenciled in a proto-punk font.

T-shirts as objects of resistance and solidarity were not confined to the ivory tower, either. The Black Panther Party produced its own array of protest gear sporting the iconic panther design and images of armed Black Panthers, which are easily the most recognizable T-shirt designs from the Civil Rights and Black Power movement, if not the whole era. 

In the ‘70s, slogan T-shirts exploded in popularity across society. Team shirts, school shirts, commercial business shirts … they were everywhere, including on the picket line. When The United Farm Workers, led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, took action against unfair labor practices of grape growers in Delano, California, they did so with powerful slogan printed on posters, pins and even T-shirts. In a 1973 photograph, Huerta wears a shirt with a bunch of grapes, one of which is stained by a single drop of blood drop. Printed above and below it are the words “There’s Blood on Those Grapes” and “Don’t Buy Gallo Wine,” respectively.

Meanwhile, across the pond, punks were flocking to Vivienne Westwood’s “SEX” boutique in London, where among the bondage gear-turned-haute fashion there was also a smattering of shirts. Along with the DIY trappings that came to define punk T-shirts (think safety pins and ripped sleeves) were screened graphics that rocked the boat and proclaimed a wearer’s punk political leanings. In 1975, one of Westwood’s iconic designs of two cowboys touching penises even landed one a shop clerk in the clink for “indecent exhibition.” Her most overtly political tee from the era was printed with an upside-down crucifix, a swastika and the word “Destroy.”

English designer Katharine Hamnett continued in the 1980s with bold, large printed T-shirts sporting clear political messages in support of Nuclear Disarmament and more generally anti-war. “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 in 2009. “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.” Hamnett would famously meet Prime Minister Magret Thatcher wearing a T-shirt she made that read “58% Don’t Want Pershing” in massive font, the slogan a reference to the U.S. Pershing Nuclear missiles that were being placed in the U.K. 

In the U.S., gay civil rights and the AIDS epidemic awareness movements also embraced the humble T-shirt as a way of proclaiming and spreading their message. Gay activists began creating tees to help draw public attention to a crisis that was being largely ignored. The most iconic of these is the Silence = Death graphic designed by six gay activists in New York in 1987, which is still available from ACT UP

As Robin Givhan in the Washington Post noted last week, there isn’t one uniform for the protestors taking to the streets in 2020. “No matter the city, the protesters look the same: eclectic, motley, fed up. They are diverse in age, gender, and race. They have braids and dreadlocks. They are dressed in hijabs, muscle tanks, and ripped jeans. They are adorned with elaborate tattoos and wear scholarly spectacles. They look like college students and soccer parents, the people next door and the neighbors from down the street.”

The matching T-shirts or pink pussyhats that have been common in a late-stage capitalism protest kind of way have been conspicuously absent, and that is powerful. Instead, the slogan T-shirts being made today (like the ones seen on Highsnobiety, Blackbird Spy Plane or Instagram) are providing value in a different way. These creations, which can draw clear lines to the shirts that came before them, are being made as a way to help support the movement from the sidelines — i.e., monetarily.

Larry Kramer in an Act Up shirt designed by Keith Haring, 1993 (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)
Getty Images

All the shirts that have popped up over the past week, from the likes of Braindead and Denim Tears to smaller but still coveted indie designers, are donating their proceeds to bail funds for protestors, mutual aid organizations and other initiatives associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. They bear messages condemning police brutality or espousing messages of solidarity and anti-racism, and they are in high demand: many are back-ordered or sold out immediately, with others already racking up high sales numbers while still in a preorder phase.

But are shirts from brands like Online Ceramics or The Chinatown Market the best way to engage with and help support this movement? “There are certainly better and worse ways to be engaged,” says Derek Guy of Die Workwear and editor of Put This On. “Consumption is also inherently political –– what are you consuming, who are you consuming from, what are you signaling when you wear some item?” And as Lawrence Schlossman, co-host of the podcast Throwing Fits and founder of erstwhile blog Four Pins, pointed out on Instagram, a T-shirt that is tied to a donation is an easy way for teenagers to get engaged. “I will admit I did not consider the fact that some of my younger followers might be afraid to donate because their parents — who very may well be on the wrong side of history — have access to their banking info,” wrote Schlossman in an Instagram story sharing the Brain Dead x Blood Orange T-shirt.  

That said, many of us can do more to show up than to buy a T-shirt. As Blackbird Spy Plane put it, “Consider these creations an opportunity to give more,” and not the only way you choose to support the movement.

Below, find a handful of the T-shirt designs that are being made now to help the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against police brutality.

The Chinatown Market’s Fuck Racism T-Shirt

Online Ceramics Good Over Evil T-Shirt

Brain Dead x Blood Orange We Are One T-Shirt

Denim Tears Cotton Peace Charity Tee

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