Get it on your chest: Inside the allure of the humble T-shirt

Lifestyle

FASHION

Get it on your chest: Inside the allure of the humble T-shirt

R10,000 for one with a designer’s name on it? Or with a virtue-signalling slogan? How about plain white?

Victoria Moss

I haven’t worked out a way to disclose the following without you spitting out your tea, so I’m just going in – gird your mugs: the (designer) fashion industry has reached a curious point where it feels free to charge upwards of R10,000 for a cotton T-shirt. You may well be incredulous. I am.A buyer friend laments that these trophy T-shirts are both the backbone of the business and the bane of it. Boutiques are given caps on how many they can order, and to get these lucrative entry-level items (handbags have become so extortionate that a new carrot was needed for the aspirational customer), they have to place a proportionate order on the even more expensive ready to wear (which is harder to shift). Retail is a racket. Not only are people charging R10,000 for a T-shirt, but they’re selling out. What can I say? If there are people rich and daft enough to buy them, then why not? That kind of return is just plain business sense.
The median point for a luxury T-shirt – a giant logo being the key design feature (so everyone knows how much you’ve spent) – settles at around R5,000, which is the magic mark retailers have identified as the shopper’s sweet spot. Enough to make you feel like you’ve treated yourself to something special, but (hopefully) not enough to get you evicted. For this amount you could find yourself a simple Gucci, Burberry, Balenciaga or YSL motif, or for the ultimate basic, Céline do a plain, stiff white T-shirt for R6,500 (celine.com). If we employ bizarro-fashion logic, it could be argued that if you only wear jeans and T-shirts, then buying very expensive versions makes more sense than the R5,000 you might spend on a dress for a wedding you’ll only wear once.What fresh hell has brought us to this dubious point, you might understandably be wondering. Helpfully, the Fashion and Textile Museum in London is examining the history of the T-shirt in its current exhibition (T-shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion until May 6).
Originally a humble item of standard issue underwear for the US Navy (handy gastro-pub quiz fact: the word T-shirt first appeared in the Merriam-Webster dictionary after F Scott Fitzgerald used the term in his 1920 debut novel, This Side of Paradise), it quickly became a canvas on to which myriad projections could be made, earning hit designs cult status and peak desirability: as a promotional tool (first deployed by MGM for The Wizard of Oz in 1939); encapsulating the American dream’s broken and brooding masculinity (see Marlon Brando, James Dean); politicking (Katharine Hamnett’s “58% don’t want Pershing” statement to meet Margaret Thatcher in 1984); and subversion (Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren attired the punk movement with the provocative designs sold in their World’s End store).A T-shirt is the easiest and most egalitarian means of getting your message across as well as a powerful way of demarking your tribe and its cause – and thankfully most don’t cost a fortune. In 1973, The New York Times declared the T-shirt to be “the medium for the message”, yet they were perhaps envisioning something with more gravitas than, say, “Inspiration of the day: myself” (Zara.com).
Other modern messages, ranging from worthy to completely meaningless with the odd bit of irony, coming to a slogan T-shirt near you (New Look is currently selling three every minute) include: “Time’s Up” (see Hollywood), “Daughter of Pankhurst” (worn by MP Stella Creasy in the Commons), “Save the bees” ( Katharine Hamnett, matchesfashion.com), “Bloody difficult woman” (fawcettsocietyshop.com), “I hate Rihanna” (worn by Rihanna) or my personal favourite, “Some heartfelt words” (Zara).Victoria Beckham sets herself up  with her “It’s a dark but happy place” offering, in reference to the sunglasses she doesn’t leave the house at night without, while Swedish high-street hipster brand Monki commends “small actions matters” (sic).
Smug statements beaming from a cheap T-shirt bring to mind the suffragette sentiment of deeds not words. Can a T-shirt change the world? Perhaps in small measures. Pink Parcel – purveyors of period subscription packages (containing everything from tampons to herbal tea) – has collaborated with various women to create T-shirts which aim to take the stigma out of periods, as well as donating money from every one sold to Bloody Good Period, an organisation supplying asylum seekers and refugees with essentials.
The Katharine Hamnett “Choose Love” – as seen on Gemma Arterton – is in aid of Help Refugees, which runs projects across Europe and the Middle East. At the posher end of the altruism scale, Net-a-Porter partnered with brands such as Stella McCartney, Chloé, Ganni and Bella Freud to create T-shirts celebrating International Women’s Day – with all profits benefiting Women for Women International.The difficulty with this growing mountain of T-shirts is the issue with sustainability. With over two billion sold globally each year, T-shirts (it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce just one) are fast fashion’s chief weapon of mass destruction. Cheaply – sometimes questionably – produced and easily discarded, today’s catchy slogan is tomorrow’s landfill.
If all this sartorial virtue signalling is a bit earnest for you, then shop sparingly and look for styles that sing rather than slogans and let me recall for you, if I may, some advice from 1990s crooner Ronan Keating, “you say it best, when you say nothing at all”.
© The Daily Telegraph

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