Been there, done that, got the T-shirt

(by Lily Whittle and illustrated by Vaneeza Jawad)

T-shirt activism; self-expression or performative? 

Wear any band T-shirt and you will undoubtedly be asked at some point about how many songs you can name. Wear a ‘We should all be feminists’ T-shirt and you’re a radical. No-one can argue with you on that. I mean, you’ve got the T-shirt.

But who makes these T-shirts? 80% of fast fashion seamstresses are women, with only 2% receiving a living wage. Not so feminist now, are we?

Of course, we are all guilty in some capacity of owning items with these slogans. It’s certainly not productive to throw them all away, but at what point can wearing a T-shirt really be seen as activism? 

In September 2021, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a striking white dress to the Met Gala. On the back of the dress, it read “Tax the Rich”. Clear and visible for all the incredibly wealthy Met Gala attendees to see. At the time this received mixed reviews, some people commended her nerve, others critiqued the effectiveness of the message. Many called her out on her performative activism.

It then makes you wonder, what makes any form of ‘T-shirt activism’ effective? Personally, I don’t see AOC as performative. She dedicates her life to helping people; she’s a politician in the Bronx. Without people paying their taxes, she can’t do her job. 

But perhaps it wasn’t the other Met Gala attendees she was aiming to get the message out to. Perhaps it was just us, to be reminded that this is a group of people who do not pay their taxes. Maybe these slogans are a way of planting the seed and not changing the world?

Performative activism has been a trendy word ever since June 2020 and the rise of social media activism around the Black Lives Matter protests. At the time, 28 million of us posted this black square on our Instagram accounts, and the argument arose: is solidarity enough? The hypocrisy of big brands like ASOS, whose business models depend on exploitation of POC, posting squares for BLM is enough to understand why people were outraged.

The issue erupted even further during the pandemic when exploited garment workers were forced back into Covid-unsafe factories to make T-shirts saying “We love the NHS”. Can Boohoo really claim to love the NHS if it’s forcing its workers to continue production in a global pandemic, while continuing to pay them less than minimum wage? 

These messages were undoubtedly uplifting in a time of despair, but who were these T-shirts actually helping? While many of these companies paired up with charities and donated parts of their profits from the sale of the T-shirts to the NHS or corresponding charities, would it not be easier to simply donate directly to the cause? Do we need to always feel that we are getting something back from our activism? 

In a time of climate emergency where fast fashion is responsible for at least 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions each year, buying a T-shirt every time you want to contribute to a cause is certainly not the most ethical option. Our actions are what can make a difference. 

We all have causes that are close to our hearts which we want the world to know about. This can be a fundamental part of self-expression. But sometimes it’s not about us; it’s about the movement we are helping. We need to look past the T-shirt – what else can you do? And can you do that without buying the T-shirt? 

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