The Careless Talk of Clothes

I want to talk about summer, so of course it is raining.


The recent spell of barmy sunshine has provoked a sudden and seismic change in people’s wardrobes. The same happened last year and the years before that. It will happen again next year. Dark body-covering clothes, sartorial staples upon which we have relied for the past few months have, with haste and a certain amount of naivety, been ditched in favour of bright and often all-too-revealing variants. T-shirts are particularly prominent this year, a trend that is probably connected with the emergence of the ‘Celebrity’-cum-‘Designer’. Various media personalities, including Oliver Proudlock and Rihanna, have combined their knowledge of fashion and a desire for brand extension and followed in the footsteps of Victoria Beckham to launch their own fashion labels. Lacking any form of fashion training (I imagine), the ‘celebrity designers’ have started small and are building their businesses by flogging, in the main, printed T-shirts. Even celebrities who lack the requisite nous to succeed as an entrepreneur have contributed to the present ‘T-shirt phenomenon’, as many have taken to wear shirts with provocative, or simply odd, slogans. David Hasselhof has been photographed in a ‘Don’t Hassel the Hof’ T-shirt’; the model Laura Bailey has appeared in a black tee featuring the enigmatic phrase, ‘She Died of Kisses’, and Russell Brand has worn a typically irreverent vest with the dictum, ‘You’ll Go To Hell For What Your Dirty Mind Is Thinking.’[i] Not surprisingly, what was once a humble summer staple has become a must-have item.


Careless Talk

I can’t help but think of the story of the emperor’s new clothes when I scroll through the multitude of thumbnails on websites of predominantly white ‘premium cotton’ T-shirts featuring unfathomable designs, often in black but occasionally in brighter colours. In truth, these designer T-shirts don’t look particularly special, but consumers will part with sums ranging from £50 to over £100 to bring a little bit of celebrity magic into their lives. What is interesting about the present attraction with T-shirts that seem different and stand out is that people will frequently spend money without first spending time to understand what is printed on the front. To illustrate:

A colleague recently wore a white T-shirt with a panorama of the Berlin skyline printed across the front. Below the photograph were a few sentences describing the city’s music scene, in German. I asked my colleague if he had bought the T-shirt in Berlin. No, came the reply, from TopMan. He had never been to Berlin. Strange, I thought, but fair enough. Surely he read German, though? No, he learnt French at school.


I cannot think why somebody would buy a T-shirt, or any object for that matter, featuring a photograph of a city they had never visited with words they cannot read, even if the photography and the typeface were appealing. But this is not an untypical example and I am not being unduly unfair on my colleague (I hope). Earlier this year, Amazon had to withdraw T-shirts based on the now ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm’ war slogan. The online retailer was selling T-shirts with exhortations to ‘Keep Calm and Rape Her’, ‘Keep Calm and Knife Her’ and ‘Keep Calm and Punch Her’.[ii] Apparently, the offensive slogans were not identified before printing because a computer algorithm had automatically generated them. Unfortunately, human intervention does not necessarily prevent such mishaps. Several years earlier, men’s clothier Burton had to withdraw T-shirts featuring a Russian neo-Nazi slogan that called for ethnic cleansing. Designers – evidently non-Russian – thought the words had simply meant ‘Be proud of Russia’.[iii]

White Noise

The inanimate selection of T-shirt slogans and the apparent ambivalence of the people who parade them on their chests seems a far cry from times past when clothes communicated directly and deliberately. All is not lost. In March, Vivienne Westwood’s medieval-inspired Autumn/Winter collection included garments that featured text supporting climate change policies.[iv] It is still the case that clothing communicates through the cut and colour of what we wear and when. But there is a danger that clothing, if we see it as a language along the lines sketched by Alison Lurie, is losing its grammatical structure and becoming increasingly incoherent.[v] Recent editorials about Anna Dello Russo’s fashion philosophy, in which ‘fashion is about looking fashion’, and menswear shows in Milan, Paris and London, where ‘publicity seekers don the latest – or even more outrageous – styles to feed the pack of street photographers’, indicate that the clamour of our contemporary clothing is in danger of becoming white noise.[vi] It was not always so, as two current exhibitions, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion at the Queen’s Gallery and Propaganda: Power and Persuasion at the British Library, reveal.

la modella mafia Anna Dello Russo print Givenchy

Propaganda: A Dirty Word?

Propaganda is term with an enormous amount of intellectual baggage. Originating in the seventeenth century, the word and its meaning was transformed and blackened as a consequence of the internecine conflict of the twentieth century. Originally referring to the dissemination of a particular message through persuasive techniques, from the nineteenth century propaganda was increasingly associated with the use of misleading information, typically in the sphere of politics. The British Library’s exhibition shows how propaganda was used across a variety of media to galvanise support for the war effort, including textiles.

Fabrics and clothing items had long served as conduits for communication because they could be modified without excessive cost or effort. In the medieval period, belts were a popular choice for communicating ideas.[vii] In the twentieth century, headscarves were favoured. Their large surface area made them ideally suited to patriotic and pugnacious messages.[viii] Worn by women in factories, perhaps even by male soldiers, British scarves featured rousing excerpts from Churchillian rhetoric. One particularly fine example depicts a street map of London with arrows highlighting ‘the famous buildings bombed or burned out’. The scarf’s border contains words from Churchill’s speeches.[ix] The colour of many of the wartime scarves printed in Britain and America – predictably, red, white and blue – were recalled in a pocket square that Drake’s released last year to commemorate Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. The silk square featured soldiers, policeman and a stylised version of the Gold State Coach.


In a similar vein, the exhibition of Tudor and Stuart finery in the Queen’s Gallery emphasises how clothing conveyed social rank and political messages.[x] To a certain extent, communication through dress was clearer (and easier?) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and earlier, because sumptuary legislature limited the grades and colours of cloth and fur that people could wear. The laws were not vigorously upheld, but transgression could result in confiscation of the offending article, a fine of £10 per day (presumably until said item was handed over) or three months in jail. There was even an incentive scheme for informants.[xi] Sartorial restrictions could also spark novel forms of communication, as evidenced by wartime Japanese kimonos. Sumptuary legislature remained in force in twentieth century Japan (as it did to a lesser extent in the west where sobriety in dress was championed over extravagance), but patriots could still air their views by choosing brighter and narrative-based linings for their garments.[xii] This may have amounted to a whisper, rather than a shout, but it shows that individual expression was desired and possible.

A is for…

If the sartorial syntax of the past was generally clear, why is this not necessarily the case today? The question may seem slightly unfair. Clothing examples from the past, whether portraits or garments, have survived because of their political, religious or financial importance. They are rarefied and generally atypical examples of how clothing communicated when money was no object, which is the case for many of the garments on display in the Queen’s Gallery exhibition. To compare a contemporary Serge de Nîmes’ T-shirt costing £55 with a lace collar from the seventeenth century that would cost over £200,000 in today’s prices – the price of an Aston Martin – is to do an injustice to the modern fashion industry, and its acolytes.[xiii] It must also be said, lest it appear that I am demonising T-shirts and all who them, that  T-shirts are a relatively cost-effective, if unimaginative, way of communicating ideas directly, which explains their use during war and their adoption by fundraisers and campaigners today. However, using a flat surface to communicate by means of bold print lettering does suggest that an appreciation of the communicative subtleties of dress has been lost.


The present production and purchase of T-shirts also indicates that brands and their consumers are not as discriminating as we might expect. I suspect the reason for this is nothing so profound as the amount of choice that we all now have. Sumptuary regulations no longer exist for many people and expectations about what to wear at work, on the weekends and at weddings, are much looser than they were even ten years ago. We might be suffering at the moment, but many of us are also wealthier and can afford to purchase at least some of the items made by the large fashion houses. Social changes mean that dress has become democratised – to invoke that problematic phrase again – and appearing as an individual is consequently more difficult. The implication of what I am saying is that people will now buy and wear anything just to appear unique. As bleak as this may be, this is undoubtedly true in some cases. The same would have also applied in past, to some extent. Far bleaker, I think, is that the ‘T-Shirt phenomenon’ suggests we have become compliant consumers who will meekly buy what we are sold. We respond passively to the clothing choices that we are given, rather than actively seek to determine the goods that we can buy.

Rebecca Willis highlighted this point in the Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine earlier in the year. Willis questioned around forty woman aged between 18 and 84 with regard to what they find pleasurable and peevish about fashion. The verdict, which was as critical of fashion magazines as fashion houses, was that women wanted ‘more style, less speed and more sleeves’.[xiv] But if magazines and multinationals are culpable, so are we. Now that we can generally have what we want, whenever we want it, we appear to have become complacent about editing the sartorial information with which we are harassed and are disinclined, or deterred, from making personal and informed choices about what we could, and should, wear. In a sea that swells with clothing choices it is easy to drown. Consequently, we are perhaps more inclined to latch onto magazine or celebrity-inspired trends that emerge buoy-like from the scudding drifts and appear to offer sartorial safety. Unfortunately, as fashion’s past has always made clear, looks can be deceptive and in the case of T-shirts they can be positively offensive.

[ii] T. McVeigh, ‘Amazon acts to halt sales of ‘Keep Calm and Rape’ T Shirts’. Accessed: 21-v-2013.

[iii] ‘Racist T-shirt withdrawn’. Accessed: 21-v-2013.

[iv] L. Leitch, ‘Paris Fashion Week: Vivienne Westwood autumn/winter 2013’. Accessed: 28-v-2013.

[v] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000).

[vi] S. Marsh, ‘Neon furs, micro minis and killer heels at 50: What Vogue’s Anna Dello Russo wears to work (sometimes all at the same time)’, The Times Magazine (Saturday, 27 April 2013), 28-35; J. Fallon, ‘Looking Sharp in a world of slouches?’, M (Spring 2013), 38.

[vii] B.L. Wild, ‘Emblems and enigmas: Revisiting the ‘sword’ belt of Fernando de la Cerda’, Journal of Medieval History, 37 (2011), 395.

[viii] P. Rennie, ‘London Squares: The Scarves of Wartime Britain’, Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931-1945, ed. J.M. Atkins (Yale, 2005), 229-37.

[ix] J.M. Atkins, ‘An Arsenal of Design: Themes, Motifs, and Metaphors in Propaganda Textiles’, Wearing Propaganda, 264.

[x] A. Reynolds, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion (London, 2013), 13-27.

[xi] Ibid., 18.

[xii] J.M. Atkins & M. Otaka, ‘Propaganda Precedents: Pre-1930 Propaganda Textiles’, Wearing Propaganda, 82.

[xiii] In Fine Style, 15, 88-89.

[xiv] R. Willis, ‘Clothes: a manifesto’, Intelligent Life (March/April 2013), 48-54.


    1. That’s kind of you to comment. Thank you very much!
      Btw: I really like the photographs of your inaugural MasonBentley collection ~ the (frilly) Billie and Dickie are beautiful.

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