Wearing a slogan t-shirt is really complicated
Politically inspired slogan t-shirts have crashed catwalks in past few seasons, from Dior’s ‘We should all be feminists’ and ‘Silent Soldier’ at Haider Ackermann to Ashish’s ‘Love Sees No Colour.’
Few of these would be worn by those genuinely hungry for change. Sentences are chosen to be generic and inoffensive. Even when they do mean something - because, yes, we should all be feminists - the political thrust is rendered impotent by, in the case of Dior, a £490 price tag.
But a troubled world has led to a host of more muscular responses. The women’s march against Trump, in particular, was inspired; co-opting the President’s 'nasty woman’ quote in support of Planned Parenthood to anarchic effect. In fact, the resistance has shown phenomenal wizardry with words in the name of human rights. I give you: "ImPEACH the ORANGE."
And of course, there is the mother of all slogan t-shirts, Katharine Hamnett, as uncompromising today, as the ’58 per cent don’t want Pershing’ t-shirt she wore to meet Maggie Thatcher in 1984. If I was a slogan tee, that’s what I’d want to be when I grew up.
Rarely has there been a time when it’s so vital for alternative voices to be heard, for issues to be aired, for awarenesses to be raised. And while the slogan t-shirt is unbeatably direct, it’s not as straightforward as putting a few words on a piece of cloth.
Over the past six months, learning about horrific trade in dog meat (as in eating dogs) in China has taken me to the brink. I literally can’t talk about it - but neither can I sit back and pretend it’s not happening. People need to know how these sweet, amiable animals are being killed.
The trade’s most symbolic event, in the small Chinese city of Yulin, kicks off on Midsummer’s Day. So, after leafleting and signing petitions and demonstrating got a bit wan, I got a t-shirt printed. It's simple, no graphics or hashtags. I just needed to get the message out there and that message was ‘stop Yulin.’
The tee comes from organic, fair-trade cotton suppliers Rapanui Clothing, who have a nice sideline in customisation. I put it on, made sure the make-up was steady, the styling was easy but smooth (basically not your run-of-the-mill animal rights activist) and went out.
For a private person, going public about a cause that has created so much personal grief was odd.
I thought I'd have to justify myself. I ran over a different conversations in my head, from the entirely understandable “People are dying - and you’re protesting about dogs?” to “What about the pigs and the cows?” and “You’re being racist. This is their culture.”
There’s a reply, of sorts, for each of these (email me) but I never needed to use them. People’s eyes dropped from my face to the words and back again, before getting on with their day.
The only time I got a frisson of recognition was on the tube, standing opposite a Chinese family. Their faces, as they watched me, were blank but wary. Millions of Chinese hate the dog meat trade; I’m not sure they were among them.
Then, one lovely young woman taking cash at a till asked: ‘What’s Yulin?’ And I thought, "Do I want to wreck your day, the sun out, with what I’ve seen on animal rights videos?" So I explained lightly that it was a festival where they ate dogs, it was really horrible and thanks so much for asking.
But, in reality, I've copped out. I’ve played it as safe as Dior without the price tag. Apart from protesters and participants, very few have heard of Yulin, let alone know what goes on there, and - apart from the girl in the shop - most don't feel the right to enquire. The t-shirt is attracting attention; it's not changing hearts and minds.
But is the truth of the dog meat trade too ugly to wear on a chest? Seriously, what would you feel if you saw a t-shirt with the words ‘Stop Boiling Dogs Alive’? Possibly angry. But at who? The people doing the boiling - or the person wearing the shirt? And, if the latter, why? Did they disrupt your day just a bit too much?
And what if, as other labels have done, I’d sent the t-shirt to other influencers, told them about the trade and asked them to wear it in protest? Would they have paraded it as happily as a designer slogan tee, taken a selfie, posed with Katy Perry?
The trade in dog meat isn’t going to end any time soon; another t-shirt will have to be made. And when I make it, I’ll be asking myself "Do I ramp this up, and maybe, just maybe, save a few dogs, from prolonged and painful deaths? Or should I leave as is?”
A lot of what’s going on in the world today may be too awful to process but it’s also too awful to ignore. If there’s something you care about, don’t wait for someone to make the t-shirt. Make it yourself, prep for some tricky conversations and change the world.