The popularity of protest T-shirts

Campaigns Officer Sara Medi Jones writes about the current trend for protest t-shirts.

Every season has its stand-out fashion trends. And this year it was undoubtedly all about the protest t-shirt. From festivals to bars, catwalks to demonstrations, it seems that everyone is wearing one. Even leading fashion house Dior sent models down the runway wearing political t-shirts, declaring ‘We should all be feminists’.  

CND was of course ahead of the curve! Sales of our Katharine Hamnett designed ‘NHS not Trident’ t-shirts have soared over the last few years, as our supporters use the opportunity to make their views about spending money on nuclear weapons known.

In a year when politics has seemed more extreme than usual, is the slogan t-shirt an opportunity to make a personal stand?

Clothing has been used as a form of protest throughout history. Suffragettes wore white to symbolise purity, during the March on Washington in 1963, black women wore denim overalls to mark their commitment to civil rights and supporters of the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004–2005 wore the colour in solidarity. Even a lack of clothing can make a point; recall the PETA ‘We’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur’ campaign adverts.

CND supporter Vivienne Westwood was designing protest t-shirts in the 1970s, but perhaps the most famous statement t-shirt moment of all came in the 1980s when Katharine Hamnett attended an event with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 10 Downing Street. She chose to wear a top with the slogan ‘58% don’t want Pershing’, a reference to Thatcher’s decision to allow US Pershing nuclear  missiles to be stationed in Britain despite the majority of the public being opposed.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Hamnett has said

“That t-shirt gave me a voice… Slogans work on so many different levels; they're almost subliminal. They're also a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They're tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself.”

But why do more people feel this need to ‘brand oneself’ right now? The election of President Trump has galvanised people that may not have been involved with protest before. It’s been apparent at anti-Trump events that CND has attended in 2017 that people are turning up to demonstrations for the first time, following his shocking statements and actions on subjects as diverse as immigration, sexism, trans rights, climate change and peace. In the UK, Brexit has had a similar effect in politicising new swathes of people.  

CND’s membership is certainly increasing and our t-shirts are extremely popular, as CND’s Fundraising Officer Ilanga Preuss explains. “CND’s t-shirts are really popular – sales are doing well and we’re seeing more and more people wear them to demos. When the NHS not Trident t-shirts were first designed, they sold out very quickly.

“The message really resonated with people. Many people regard the NHS highly and recognise it as a vital service - some will have a deep personal connection to it. When the NHS staff strikes began last year, the t-shirts’ popularity grew again - people wanted to show their support for health professionals while also highlighting the practical and moral issues around prioritising funding for nuclear weapons.”

There are many benefits to CND from people wearing our t-shirts. “Many people have told us that the slogan T-shirts are excellent conversation starters – strangers will approach them to discuss nuclear weapons, which is brilliant for the campaign. In this way, CND T-shirts get our message out into public spaces that we can’t reach with traditional communications, like print or even social media,” says Ilanga.

It’s fantastic for CND to see people identify themselves so boldly as a supporter of the organisation, so let’s make the most of the trend. You can get our now famous NHS not Trident T-shirt while stocks last, or visit CND's Teemill store for a range of slogan tees and sweatshirts - all organic and ethically made.