There has been a recent trend in fashion that has been all too easy to mock and dismiss: men and women have been wearing their fourth-wave feminist credentials on their T-shirts. T-shirts with feminist slogans have been sold by Etsy and Asos; they have even made it to the Paris fashion week schedule. Fashion and feminism don’t always get along, which is precisely why what’s happening right now is significant. When women on protest marches are wearing the same feminist-slogan T-shirts as models on the Paris catwalks, we have, what we call at fashion week, a moment.
Last Saturday, the actor Natalie Portman spoke at the Los Angeles Women’s March wearing a Dior T-shirt sporting the legend “We Should All Be Feminists”, a quote Dior took from the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and which became the most Instagrammed look of the previous Paris fashion week. Rihanna posted a photo of herself in the same T-shirt on Saturday, as well as another image of herself wearing a pink THIS P**SY GRABS BACK hoodie from the label, designed by Victoria’s Secret model Leomie Anderson. This was shortly after Alexa Chung put up a selfie wearing an IN SOLIDARITY T-shirt from the Deep End Club, a conscious fashion label by DJ Tennessee Thomas. Ariana Grande Instagrammed herself in a hooded sweatshirt bearing an image of Malala Yousafzai and the legend FIGHT LIKE A GIRL. She teamed the sweatshirt with a pair of thigh-high boots.
A protestor at the Women’s March in the US at the weekend. Photograph: Jessica Hill/AP
Interestingly, all of these images cross-fertilise two very different aesthetics. The imagery of celebrity glamour and that of women on political protest marches occupy two distinct worlds. But when norms are under extreme and profound pressure, the world shifts on its axis and old enmities are deemed irrelevant. Faced with the reality of a president who boasts about sexual assault, the historic calibrations of feminist allegiance seem of secondary concern.
This is not about whether your T-shirt can make you a feminist, or whether the imperfections of the fashion industry sully the principles of feminism. It is not even, in this instance, about the ethics of wearing a mass-produced T-shirt proclaiming solidarity with women when the production of cheap T-shirts often involves low-paid female labour (important though that issue clearly is). It is just about the power of a slogan T-shirt to subvert the insidious misogyny of a culture in which women tend to be visible only if attractive, and even then are seldom granted a voice. A T-shirt that says something the establishment does not want to hear turns the seen-and-not-heard attitude on its head.
The Dior T-shirt speaks in polite – traditionally feminine? – tones. But THIS P***Y GRABS BACK, and the many other T-shirts of its ilk, claim for both fashion and feminism the sense of humour and fun that both are often mocked for lacking. The slur of being humourless is something both fashion and feminism are touchy about. (Even, possibly, one of the reasons why they are tetchy about relations with each other.) But a sense of humour, a licence to make jokes, is a symbol of power. Jokes matter.
Fashion can’t be accused of bandwagon-jumping here, because catwalks were play-acting the mass feminist protest almost three years before it became a reality. Back in September 2014, Chanel staged a faux-manifestation catwalk show, featuring Cara Delevingne with a loudspeaker and placards reading “Ladies First” and “Women’s Rights are Alright”. That same month, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were photographed in Fawcett Society T-shirts proclaiming “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like”, a conversation soon derailed by a row over working conditions in the factory where the T-shirts were produced.
The following year, Delevingne was wearing a similar sentiment IRL, when her then-girlfriend Annie Clark bought two navy sweatshirts bearing the slogan “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE”, a direct quote from 1970s radical feminist history. Around the same time, the female stars of the film Suffragette, including Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, posed in T-shirts bearing the Pankhurst quote, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” (The images of Streep and Mulligan were challenged by those who felt privileged white women were insensitive to use the language of slavery, even in quotation marks.) The Bella Freud sweater bearing the legend Solidarité Feminine has been an Instagram staple over the past two years, slipping under the radar by virtue of being in French and therefore sounding as if it is primarily about chic.
The T-shirt Madonna wore to march on Saturday, with its ironic assertion that “Feminism is the Radical Notion That Women Are People”, borrows a 31-year-old quote from the writer Marie Shears. In tone and sentiment, it is near identical to Dior’s T-shirt, We Should All be Feminists, which will go on sale next month. Neither is likely to change the world, but both raise awareness of a spirit of protest that will not be silenced. This spring, there is only one fashion statement that really matters.
I had an abortion Gloria Steinem made headlines when she wore this T-Shirt - produced for a documentary about abortion - in 2004. It was in the news again in 2012, when one of the filmmakers, Jennifer Baumgardner, spoke at the University of North Carolina and sold the T-shirts on campus. Anti-abortion students hit back with “I Haven’t Killed a Baby” T-shirts.
No More Page 3 Part of the campaign to remove Page 3 from the Sun, this T-shirt was worn by Caroline Lucas in Parliament in 2013. After being told her attire was “not in line with regulations”, Lucas responded by holding up an image of a topless model and commenting, “It strikes me as an irony that this T-shirt is seen as offensive.” Fair point.
This is What a Feminist Looks Like Designed by the Fawcett Society and originally produced by Whistles in 2014, both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg wore this T-shirt. It was later mired in controversy after allegations were made about conditions in the factory where it was made by the – mostly female – employees. The Fawcett Society insisted the shirts were made to ethical standards.
The Future is Female Cara Delevigne and her on-off girlfriend Annie Clark were spotted in this T-shirt in 2015. The slogan dates back to 1975, and a design created for Labyris Books, a women’s bookshop. It was remade by Rachel Berks who runs Otherwild, a shop in New York and Los Angeles. Lauren Cochrane