Wherefore art thou a teenage dirtbag? Photograph by Christian Vierig via Getty Images.

When Wearing a Graphic T-Shirt is a Revolutionary Act

As more brands commodify beliefs and values on t-shirts, fashion theory shows us how to transcend mere slogan politics.

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Mar 30 2018, 1:00pm

Wherefore art thou a teenage dirtbag? Photograph by Christian Vierig via Getty Images.

Just before the French Revolution in 1789, working-class men began wearing rough coats and frowzy neckwear; women began wearing simple shifts and unadorned hair. These French commoners, many of whom would become a part of the revolution, took to calling themselves the “sans-culottes”—culottes being the silk, often frilled, knee-length trousers favored by the nobility. Clothing, more than any other external characteristic, marked the social movements of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century France, pointing towards the revolutionaries’ political desires.

In the present day, however, the mix of class demonstrated by clothing has become increasingly muddled. Indeed, what fashion markers unified the demonstrators of Occupy Wall Street—particularly when Kanye West showed up in a $355 Givenchy shirt? How is wealth understood through clothing now that some of the richest people in the world reside in Pacific Heights palaces, but stroll to their technology and venture capital offices in jeans and rumpled sweaters? Outside of specific social niches, sartorial semiotics have become almost impossible to parse.

Enter a staple of the modern, youthful wardrobe: the graphic tee.

On one level, the graphic tee’s signals are glaringly obvious. “I like Thrasher” or “I like Supreme (and I was willing to stand in line for it).” On a deeper level, graphic tees make statements like, “I desire to fit in” or “I’m a part of subculture.” But what is deceptive—and most rhetorically and semiotically fertile about graphic tees—is the directness of meaning they provide, which allows for an immediate locating of the wearer’s self-image and desired projection. They convey political sentiments, social desires, cultural tastes, or membership to (or at least knowledge of)subcultures. That is they are able to communicate one’s “brand,” often otherwise contained to social media, in the real world.

There’s a practical reason for the contemporary popularity of the graphic tee too: they’re relatively easy and cheap to manufacture, while they can be priced widely and wildly, from an $18 Forever21 “Wu-Tang” shirt to a $325 Balenciaga t-shirt with an image of the Paris skyline (“Classic T-shirt inspired by a souvenir t-shirt,” as the brand’s website states—a line which would also make a great Balenciaga t-shirt.). They provide a way not just for wearers to promote their own beliefs or “brand,” but also for companies to turn the wearers into walking advertisements—to commodify social trends, political beliefs, and their own customers, with Maria Grazia Chiuri’s “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS” t-shirt that sells for around $750 being a principle example.

What, in all of these graphic tees, are their wearers wanting to communicate with what some might consider mind-numbing simplicity? What explains this contemporary desire for directness?

It hasn’t always been so. French revolutionaries didn’t wear shirts that said, “Behead the Aristocrats” or “I’m a Revolutionary.” But more specific social factions and subgroups come with a desire for clarity in conveying messages, and a need to communicate more explicitly.

Communication has become increasingly aggressive, direct, and succinct, thanks largely to social media—namely Twitter—where divisive opinions can be hurled easily, ideological factions can quickly form, and where, once a mob mentality has set in and an argument has been contextualized in a certain way, the medium allows for an insistent rooting out of “wrong opinions.” Most of all though, it allows for the conveyance of un-nuanced opinions (thanks in part to its 140 character limit, though the increase last year to 240 characters certainly didn’t make people any more tolerant). President Trump is perhaps the ultimate example of this kind of simplicity, and yet while his words and Tweets are often blunt and seemingly to-the-point, their actual relationship to his future actions is loose and sometimes entirely unrelated. Simplicity often masks the greatest complexities.

Same goes for the catchiest of graphic tees. When Emily Ratajkowski wears a “Feminist AF” t-shirt, the meaning is simple at first glance—she’s a feminist!—but she’s also underlining a rising feminist identity politics while pointing to its demographic origins (mostly younger—often even teenage—girls) thanks to its text message-friendly abbreviation of “as fuck.” This is, of course, part of the nature of words themselves: they are at once brief and easy to present while hiding layers and staying decked with meaning.

More specific social factions and subgroups come with a desire for clarity in conveying messages, and a need to communicate more explicitly.

“Fashion is surely the fastest changing source of new ideas in contemporary visual culture,” writes Fiona Anderson, an independent fashion curator, in her book Fashion Cultures: Theories, Explorations and Analysis. But the graphic tee, unlike any other article of clothing, grounds these ever-shifting ideas within a single sartorial format, so that as history becomes a fashion fetish itself, the graphic tee maintains a formally concrete and clear semiotic significance. Just as its simple content belies its frequent complexities, the form of the tee simplifies these complexities.

Some critics, like Roland Barthes, claim that this outer simplification reveals the fundamental flaws of fashion—that it is “defined by the infinite variation of a single tautology,” as Barthes wrote in The Fashion System. But this is true of all artistic media: the novel, the opera, the play. The possibility for conveying meaning is necessarily constrained by format. In this way, the graphic tee becomes the ultimate end point of the Barthesian conception—and critique—of fashion: total clarity, nuance hidden by simplicity.

The graphic tee represents an overturning of the idea that historical transience necessarily implies triviality—that the whole of contemporary history, of social movements, of the Internet, of so much of what is usually unsaid and unseen, might be placed in a few words on a single article of clothing. In this way, it is the ultimate—and simplest—social statement.

Would the French revolutionaries have worn graphic tees? It certainly would have been easier than coordinated coats and neckwear. It could have gotten across the same meaning. Simple, constrained by format, clearly communicative, the graphic tee reflects our modern desire for immediacy while revealing that nuance and double-meanings that still underlie messages as elementary as Trump’s Tweets. But the graphic tee’s apparent modernity hides its historical depths: from a petty president to an oppressed European underclass, haven’t we always wanted to make ourselves known? And aren’t we all more complex than we might first appear?