The storm in a T-shirt still rages after 40 years
Still making protest fashion
Anti-fur protesters may have placarded London fashion week’s show venues, but political point-making has become almost as common on the catwalk and red carpet of late.Sunday night’s Baftas saw actresses dress in black in support of Time’s Up, and Dior’s We Should All Be Feminists T-shirt, which spawned a thousand high-street copies, was named 2017’s “dress of the year” by The Fashion Museum, Bath.“A 450 quid T-shirt, that would keep two cotton-farming families going for a year,” says Katharine Hamnett. “And what do you achieve? It’s a reference of [Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s] book. But how watered down could you be? ” As for the all-black red carpets: “Black is one of the sexiest colours in the world,” she says. “You think you’re making a protest? Wake up, look in the mirror.”Katharine Hamnett has made a career from pulling no punches. She designed her first politicised slogan tee in 1983. It read “Choose Life” and was made famous when George Michael wore it in Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go music video. “I was having an argument with Lynne Franks” – the PR widely accepted to be the inspiration behind Ab Fab’s Edina Monsoon - “she’s very interested in Buddhism, and she put on this exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute. I said: ‘This is going to have absolutely no effect; you’d be better off printing the central Buddhist tenet, which is ‘Choose Life’, in giant letters on a white T-shirt’. So I went and did it – I just thought, why not?”That “why not” mentality has carved Hamnett’s place in fashion history. It was cemented the moment she shook hands with then UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher in a T-shirt branded “58% don’t want pershing” – she whipped off her coat just in time for a photo, catching Thatcher unawares. It was “almost a practical joke”, says Hamnett, but the message reached further than she could have anticipated – she’s had offers from the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art for the original T-shirt from 1984, though she’s yet to part with it.
Her designs are some of the most copied in history and, while for most brands that would spell disaster, Hamnett realised early on that to be copied was to have her voice amplified. “I thought, that would make me happy, if they copied it. Make this worldwide: nuclear ban now, stop acid rain, save the sea, no war. They were regarded as quite radical at the time. American Vogue deigned to come and see me in my office: they took one look at the T-shirts and, without saying a word, they swung on their heels and walked out.Having launched her fashion brand in 1979, Hamnett shuttered her doors in 2004, frustrated with an industry-wide lack of interest in sustainability. But now the original T-shirt activist is back with a new collection (using organic cotton and producing sustainably) and a new plan. “The thing about T-shirts is, they don’t actually achieve anything unless you follow them up with pressure on your elected representative,” says Hamnett, whose latest designs are printed on the back with the guidelines of doing just that, plus a sample letter. “I think it’s a feminist issue, isn’t it? We’ve only had the vote 100 years – start using it now.”
Hamnett is marking that anniversary with Liberty, the exclusive stockists of the relaunched label. A century ago, suffragettes met in the department store – one of the few places women were allowed to gather unchaperoned – to make plans. In 1912, they smashed the store’s windows – “glass smashing for votes!” After 100 years of those votes, Liberty is marking International Women’s Day on March 8 by putting eight women in those same windows, photographed by Mary McCartney: businesswomen, authors and fashion pioneers, hence Hamnett’s own spot behind the glass. Elsewhere in London, the Fashion and Textile Museum’s newly-opened exhibition – T-shirt: Cult Culture Subversion – also pays homage to the designer's legacy.At 70, she’s throwing her hat back into the ring. Forty years ago, fashion wasn’t ready to hear what she had to say, but things can change – Hamnett’s betting her business on it.
– © The Daily Telegraph