Working at the Fashion & Textiles Museum: The Typology of the T shirt

Working at the Fashion & Textiles Museum: The Typology of the T shirt

Being privy to such a unique and appealing exhibition has been an eye opening experience to the power, timelessness and social relevance pf fashion as a concept; every pin, needle, thread, garment and fabric is almost miraculously transformed from a literally unwritten slate to a product with very little remnant of its raw materials.

Founded in 2003 by Zandra Rhodes, the Fashion and Textiles Museum is the only museum in the UK which is dedicated to exhibiting the development of contemporary fashion. Some of their most popular exhibitions have emphasised textiles and prints, such as ‘Missoni Art Colour’, ‘1920s Jazz Age Fashion’ and ‘The World of Anna Sui’.

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A story is fabricated on an array of clothes which are often more for statement and show than practicality (the word is ‘couture’). Whoever it is that does the purchasing, an upper east side housewife with a dog walker and an art dealer or a local dad, the production behind the product requires a vast team of people and, more importantly, of creativity.

This whimsical creativity is encapsulated within the pastel pink and burnt orange walls of London’s Fashion and Textiles Museum- both in the exhibitions itself and in the team who carefully craft every nook and cranny into art pieces keenly photographed by Londoners and tourists alike.

Having looked through many a feedback file (and copied them up) during my time there, I can guarantee that I am not the only one who holds this opinion- a cultural artefact, a gem within Bermondsey Street, it is ‘delightful’ and ‘value for money’ indeed.

What’s more, however, is that it the museum and the exhibitions it carries are genuinely educational. As a volunteer, you have an inside perspective into to all the small details behind the scenes that unravel through the artefacts of art and culture. The hard work is contained visually in the props on display.

The most recent exhibition (which is still on until May 6th) is fittingly named ‘The T SHIRT: CULT-CULTURE-SUBVERSION’ (partnering with a smaller, more technical collection called ‘The Secret Life of Scissors’.)

Dennis Nothdruft, head of exhibitions at the Fashion and Textile Museum, states:

“I think the T-shirt has democratized ideas of what fashion could be…I think it now raises questions about sustainability and ethics, which many designers and companies are starting to address. Some, like Katharine Hamnett, were early adopters and pushed for change and others have yet to really engage, but the movement is there. It is a testament to the power of a very simple piece of clothing.” (Women’s Wear Daily)

While the exhibition’s aim is not to hand over a complete history of the t-shirt to each and every initially ignorant bystander, the undertones of punk and political statements are accessible to all – from today’s generation who find themselves immersed in this tumultuous political climate triggered by things such as Brexit and the Trump administration , all the way to those who reminiscent of youth culture and the start of the swinging sixties.
The gallery itself is set up in a way which alludes to the contrast between indoors and outdoors- shops, stores and streets that ultimately lean towards the vibe of a city scape (especially due to the ‘I heart NY’ tee which was taken back by New Yorkers and made ‘cool’ again).

Personal Highlights: 
Politics and the Punk Movement:

The collection features a private Vivienne Westwood line of t shirts, from Let it Rock, Sex, and Seditionaries, through to the designer’s most recent collections, Active Resistance to Propaganda and Climate Revolution. Other tees include ‘Fuck Brexit’ and anti-Islamophobia slogans such as ‘I am not a terrorist’.

‘The Who’ were one of the first bands to release concert tees along with ‘Rolling Stone’ and ‘The Grateful Dead’. While the concept of merch is now a staple for mainstream artists and underground talents alike, the band tee was a phenomenon in its day- one which signified music taste, support and often youthful rebellion.
Ethics and Ecology

Slogan T-shirts such as “Climate Revolution” and “Save the Arctic” (again by Westwood) showcase the way clothing can be used as a positive force. Ironically, the production of the t shirt is guilty of producing CO2 emissions and plenty of water wastage. However, fashion is a necessary evil, especially when it is created with care and as sustainably as possible. These t shirts are definitely self aware.
LGBTQ+ and Transgressing Gender Norms

The Dior “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt and the classic ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ tee, sported by Beyoncé, are key slogans utilised to make progress in the over-arching campaign for gender equality. As you ascend the staircase, you will also find the use of sexual imagery, such as the top half of a naked female, used to make statements about liberating human and female sexuality. Masculine mannequins with strong jawlines and high cheek bones are tightly fitted into snug tees which scream femininity whereas their girlish counterparts, distinguished by rounded faces and narrow shoulders, sport loose shirts with slogans such as ‘dom-top’ and the trans symbol.

Luxury Fashion Item

The classic Gucci tee, the burial outfit of choice for many die hard hype beasts, and the ‘J’adore Dior’ shirt, Carrie Bradshaw’s weapon for resurrecting both vintage and high fashion, provide eclectic status symbols for those who can afford them.
Art to Wear

The making of such garments involves technique, sweat and talent. The t shirt is created through embroidery, printing and silk screen techniques. It is a canvas for artists as an egalitarian, portable medium for graphics that carry a deeper message. While often deemed as low brow rather than high art, these shirts are highly reproducible, affordable and effective, rendering it easy as pie to promote playful or political messages. They are harnessed to “turn their wearers into living masterpieces”. A commercial equivalent to the classic painting or sculpture, the everyday tee is made less mundane through unique visuals in order for the world of art and fashion collide.
While its origins are simple and practical, first making its appearance as a piece of army kit worn under uniforms, its impact is anything but; the T Shirt has metamorphosed from a humble garment to the most popular clothing piece on the planet. And the meaning with which it does so is an edifice of both art and culture.

Whatever your choice of T Shirt ( whether grungy, plain or even cropped) after exploring this exhibition you are sure to be more cautious of how significant even a seemingly ‘innocent’ fashion choice can be. And the impact its visual, aesthetic, and mental,  stimulation can have on others.

Be sure to check out the museum’s next exhibition: ‘Orla Kiely: A Life in Pattern’



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