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Sassy Slogan Tees Are Here to Stay

Pithy saying on T-shirts have been around for decades, and they’re as big as ever.

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The year is, oh, around 2002 or so. I’m watching, as usual, to see what the too-cool-to-talk-to-me middle school socialites put on to go back to class after gym. One of them pulls on a T-shirt with text on it. 50% Angel. 50% Devil. I’m too entranced to care if my prolonged stare at the words on her chest looks inappropriate. I want that shirt.

It encapsulated everything I wasn’t: sexy (because angels, of course, meant Victoria’s Secret, and Victoria’s Secret meant sexy) yet rebellious — the kind of girl who would sneak out the window to see her boyfriend at night. The kind of girl who would have a boyfriend in the first place! And so my search for the perfect graphic tee began. I was convinced that if I could just find a shirt that told the world what kind of girl I wanted to be, I would become that girl.

For a teen trying to find herself in the questionable world of early-2000s fashion, it made sense. But as an adult, the search continues. And it’s not just me — the slogan tee seems more popular now than ever. I said I was cutting myself off after the “Sorry, Running Latte” one, but now I’m coveting this pseudo-inspirational tank. How is it that slogan tees are still relevant to the fashion world after all these years?

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Fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen says there’s some truth to my youthful belief that I could create an identity through a shirt. “When you wear slogans like that and people begin to associate you with that message, it doesn’t go away,” she says. “It leaves a mark in people’s minds — almost similar to first impressions. Whether the person is seeing you for the first time or not, it sticks with them.” Maybe that’s why I still remember my classmate’s shirt after all these years. But although the slogan tee is known as a millennial trend that appeals to younger shoppers, people have been seeking to express themselves on their shirts for decades. There’s a storied history behind this trend.

Let’s rewind (imagine a record-stopping-and-reversing noise, if you will) to the 1960s. Individuality started to become paramount in fashion in the early years of that decade, when the idea of “separates” began to replace the stuffy adherence to matchy outfits that had predominated. The look was pioneered by bold new designers like Yves Saint Laurent, with lasting consequences that are still being explored, like in last year’s Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. Suddenly, tops, jackets, and skirts provided mix-and-match options instead of single outfits. Self-expression in fashion had never been so attainable.

And then the graphic tee was birthed at a pop-art fashion boutique in London called Mr Freedom, whose cultural impact belies the fact that the store was only open from 1969 to 1972. The shop’s first location, on King’s Road, set it right in the middle of a growing counterculture movement. That movement was quick to latch onto the quirky Disney designs at Mr Freedom, which were, essentially, the first “graphic tees” in fashion. Tees featuring wordplay followed shortly after, some of the most famous examples being Vivienne Westwood’s punk designs of the ’70s, which featured words like “Chaos,” “Destroy,” and “Expose.”

Few got the concept of merging clothing and identity like Westwood, who came from a buttoned-up background as a teacher and reinvented herself as a punk fashion entrepreneur. Westwood brought punk aesthetics to the forefront of fashion when she rebranded the clothing shop she’d opened with boyfriend Malcolm McLaren, formerly called Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, with the simple name Sex and a new punk look. At 430 King’s Road, London, the shop was actually in the building that had once housed Mr Freedom. Sex sold bondage and fetish wear, and with its edgier aesthetic, it made sense to trade in scandalous graphic tees as well. Although not all of Westwood’s shirts would sell well today (at least one design featured a swastika), their popularity marked a new movement in fashion.

The revolutionary mood of the ’60s and ’70s also brought new options, like menswear for women (you can thank YSL for that, too) and an increasing acceptance of casual wear for everyday. Fashion followed culture, as it always does. The Me Generation was more about finding yourself than finding a family and a stable job. As people looked for new ways to interact with a changing world, they sought out new ways to visually express themselves. Women wore pants more often, men grew their hair out, tattoos became more popular. Catchphrases that expressed personality and ideology (like Timothy Leary’s famous “Turn on, tune in, drop out”) made their way into books and music. And people were learning they could express these new ideas directly on their clothes.

Rock ‘n’ roll would never die — or at least not for the next few decades — and the slogan tee wouldn’t either. In 1984, George Michael’s famous political-ish “Choose Life” shirt by graphic-tee pioneer Katharine Hamnett sparked so much imitation that one eventually found its way to a thrift store and into my closet in the early 2000s. I proudly wore it to middle school — I didn’t know what the slogan meant, but I liked the bold graphic design.

Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

Political statements fit naturally on a slogan tee, with antiwar sentiments or political messages showing up regularly on T-shirts; it’s hard to miss today’s (questionable) surge of feminist options. Announcing your stance on things has become an integral part of pop culture, thanks to social media and new waves of political activism. Political tees are more normalized in fashion than ever before. But the slogan tees that sell the most seem to have nothing to do with this cultural moment, leaning instead toward statements that are irrelevant; even juvenile. Will the fashion industry ever outgrow this trend?

So far, the industry has done quite the opposite. “We’ve seen a huge uptick in slogan tees in the past two years or so,” says Madeline Pendleton, founder and owner of Tunnel Vision, an aggressively millennial brand that trades primarily in ironic ’90s silhouettes. “The tees that do the best for us are sassy and clever, and typically provocative,” Pendleton says. “The shock and awe of the early 2000s seem to be making their way back in fashion, and slogan tees of a sexual or depraved nature communicate this trend the best.” Shock and scandal has been a factor in the slogan tee’s popularity since its birth. But with modern fashion’s fierce competition for attention, it has reached a fever pitch.

And the right graphic can compel even the biggest slogan-tee detractor. Aunny Grace, an independent fashion contractor from LA, shares none of my grade-school nostalgia for slogan tees at first. “Oh my god, Elyse, I find those shirts repulsive,” she tells me. “Oh no, so terrible. It has become a subconscious determination to avoid them.” But then she adds, “I suppose if the right expression came along for me I'd go gaga. I did spot the ‘Pills’ Brashy tee, which was classic.”

Something about graphic tees with minimalist aesthetics, like Brashy’s simple blue “PILLS” against a baby-pink background, communicates a higher price point and, in a backwards way, more class. A single word, like UNIF’s $52 “Missing” tee, conveys a certain edgy mystique. It challenges the viewer to parse out meaning. Shirts that spell it all out — like this terribly literal Forever 21 find — don’t pique interest the same way.

But those more literal options with longer messages still sell well. “I think people respond so well to them because they’re an economical way to communicate style,” says Pendleton. “It’s a relatively low price point that packs a big bang aesthetically.” One of Tunnel Vision’s bestsellers proclaims “Talk is cheap: for the low, low price of $20 you can have a conversation with me right now.” The more affordable the tee, it seems, the less esoteric the message. After all, some of the most straightforward slogan tees can be found at Walmart.

The exception to this rule appears to be the political tee: see Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” runway look. But more brands have tapped into the drive for lowbrow kitsch that’s prevalent among consumers right now. The aesthetic seems to combine a reverence for youth with reactivity to politics and culture. Faustino Goetzl, who studied fashion design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, tells me: “It looks like we’re a generation that likes to hold onto youthful sentiments. While the text tees might have a younger demographic, it still feels relatable in a sense, especially with them being so popular with us as kids.”

Melissa Gumley, a designer who named her clothing line ADHD Driven, says, “Fashion in general is often the opposite reaction of what sociopolitical things are happening — this is a backlash, I guess.” Although political tees pop up from time to time, the most popular slogan tees seem to be aggressively irrelevant. Maybe it’s a sort of escapism from the seriousness of the world at large.

A prime example is Buy Me Brunch. Its online shop deals almost exclusively in alcohol-related slogans (the site’s tagline, “Shirts They’ll Remember for Nights You’ll Forget,” is reminiscent of certain pop-country songs), and shows up with alarming regularity on my Facebook targeted ads. “The key is consistently coming up with fun, unique, bold designs,” says brand director Nick Anderson. “We focus on designing shirts that are self-referencing. Shirts that attract attention and put the wearer in a mindset where they're ready to let loose and have fun.” His professional, curated responses seem out of line with the turnt-up lifestyle the shirts advocate. But this is business: Buy Me Brunch has figured out how to make youthful irresponsibility a lifestyle brand. The consumers drive the aesthetic — in fact, BMB chooses new designs by posting them on social media and letting people vote on their favorites.

Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

Dawnn Karen gives some insight into what drives the desire to express ourselves this way. “Someone with a bold personality would wear this kind of shirt: very bold, very unafraid. These people can be unconventional in terms of personality.” (Inwardly, I’m flattered.) But she also issues a warning: “You want to be sure that slogan is something you want people to associate you with. It will leave an indelible mark on the psyche.”

Karen says slogan tees are memorable in a way other fashion statements, such as wearing a cape coat or all black, are not. “Maybe they won’t remember the whole message,” she says ominously, “but they’ll remember the general idea.” This is because of the serial position effect — the tendency to remember the first and last items in a series better than the things in the middle. It’s just enough to recall a statement on a shirt, creating a memorable link to the wearer.

“Words are the most popular form of communication at this point,” says Karen. “Just look at social media. People remember words. Text is embedded in the technology age.” Maybe that’s why the slogan tee has boomed in popularity during the Internet era. It’s how we talk to each other. Text messages. 140 characters or less. A new post every day.

Gumley makes a similar link to social media. “Right now there’s a battle for consumers between small companies and big companies,” she says. “The easiest way to get noticed is to make something controversial or funny — something that’s going to go ‘viral.’” But if companies are looking to connect with consumers, consumers are seeking to connect with each other. “If you see someone walking down the street in a funny shirt, you might stop them and say, ‘Oh my god, that’s an awesome shirt.’ And then you have a potential conversation that would never have happened otherwise.”

If I go over to O’Mighty’s sensory-overload-inducing website right now, I can find a grown-up version of that same “50% Angel” tee I coveted in middle school. Fashion has come a long way since the dark days of 2002, but the graphic tee didn’t go the way of layered tanks and whale tails.

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