The Rebellious Power of the Statement Tee

Women have used their clothing for political ends for years. It’s no wonder we’re seeing an uptick in statement fashion.

The Rebellious Power of the Statement Tee
Illustration by Alana Berger.

In 1984, the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett was invited to a reception with Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street, to celebrate London Fashion Week. As she shook the hand of the Prime Minister, and the cameras clicked away in the background, Hamnett unzipped her jacket to reveal a white T-shirt underneath, with “58% Don’t Want Pershing,” blasted across her torso. It was a reference to the proliferation of U.S. nuclear missiles across Europe. Thatcher, “bent down to read it and let out a squawk, like a chicken,” Hamnett later recalled. In that moment, the designer cemented her legacy as a godmother of the political T-shirt movement. 

Forty years on, that sartorial tradition is still going strong. That is why, one day after Donald Trump was convicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records, the model Emily Ratajkowski was photographed wearing a black T-shirt adorned with the face of Stormy Daniels, who was a key witness in the trial. It was a not-so-subtle message that was more than just a knock on Trump; it was demonstrated allyship for a woman who has received an onslaught of abuse and threats from Trump supporters for speaking out.

This wasn’t the first time Ratajkowski had used clothing to make her political views known: She has previously been seen in a Bernie Sanders T-shirt and, in 2019, with the legend “Fuck Harvey” scrawled up her arm in permanent marker. She has also pointed out that the not wearing of clothes is as much a political statement as any fashion choice. But clothed or not, these statements are made by women celebrities in a way their male peers simply can’t: When you are consistently distilled down to a body; when you are consistently in the line of the male (and female) gaze; the decision to use that body as a political billboard can feel bold, insubordinate, a little bit rebellious.

Because if men are going to look—if they have the need to “ogle beautiful women,” as the editor of the recently-relaunched U.K. men’s magazine Loaded has put it—they should take in everything those women are saying. Politicizing fashion choices is taking those oglers and turning the gaze back on them. It’s saying, “I can’t stop you from staring at me, but I can control what you see—and I will use this as a political platform.”

Power plays

Women have known for centuries that fashion—which is so often dismissed as being too frivolous for serious people to care about—has the power to create effect. Marie Antoinette caused such outrage at court when she commissioned a portrait of herself wearing a light cotton gown which resembled the underwear of the day that a more demure replacement portrait had to be painted, hastily. (The gown in question nevertheless became fashionable among Europe’s upper classes—to such an extent that the subsequent demand for cotton caused an explosion in the slave trade.)

The suffragists, who created a latter-day brand with their purple, white and green colors, also campaigned for “aesthetic” clothing, which was looser and more comfortable than the women’s clothing of the day—which critics, of course, derided as “mannish.”

Civil Rights activists wore their Sunday Best to protests, with the aim of challenging the social norms that forced them to the bottom of social hierarchies.

It’s a time-honored tradition, made more notable this year with at least five-dozen elections slated to take place globally. 

It’s why, at this year’s Met Gala, the actress Cate Blanchett wore a black, pale pink and green dress, which, as Blanchett moved across the red carpet, seemed to resemble the flag of Palestine. (At least that was the message social media took from the outfit.) It’s why the model Bella Hadid—who is Palestinian American—wore a “keffiyeh-inspired” dress to the Cannes Film Festival. 

Read more: Below the Surface of Women’s Art, Centuries of #MeToo, Misogyny

Black and white image of Emily Ratajkowski in 2019, with the legend “Fuck Harvey” scrawled on her arm. She wears a short black bodycon dress with cutouts at the waist and shoulder.
Emily Ratajkowski in 2019, with the legend “Fuck Harvey” scrawled up her arm in permanent marker. Photo by Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/Sipa USA. 

“This is the danger”

But a T-shirt here, a dress there. Is it enough? Stormy Daniels will continue to face threats and abuse from Trump’s supporters, no matter how many celebrities wear T-shirts featuring her face. As Hamnett herself told the BBC in 2018: “T-shirts by themselves are all very nice but they achieve nothing. This is the danger.”

And yet, as the suffragists discovered, those subtle flashes of purple, green and white—on a brooch, on a necklace, on a scarf—allowed them to spot other members of the sisterhood. It became a symbol more powerful than words; it created a sense of sorority. For if women are going to be scrutinized and judged and cross-examined over their clothing choices, they might as well make them mean something. Who knows? They could start a movement. 

Read more: There's Nothing Small About Microfeminism