Celebrity shirts: getting the message off their chest

Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift are just the latest stars to use a wordy garment to have their say in public

Celebrity shirts: getting the message off their chest
The evolution of the slogan tee. Composite: Rex/Eagle Press/XPOSURE

The very public romance between singer Taylor Swift and actor Tom Hiddleston has been charted from their first meeting (awkwardly dancing at New York’s Met Gala last May), to an early beach date in June (long lensed, like a photo love story from a teen mag) and then, last week, Hiddleston wearing a “I ♥ TS” vest.

This spoon-fed narrative of Hiddleswift reached its ridiculous pinnacle in Hiddleston’s top – the words, just clear enough to be deciphered through the blurry snaps, declared to the world that this was the “next stage” of the couple’s relationship. In the age of the visually focused Instagram feed, the slogan or image-led garment has become the new press release.

“A slogan on a piece of clothing has instant impact on social media,” says Kay Barron, fashion features director at Porter magazine. “It becomes more relatable than another picture of a pretty dress. It’s the fashion equivalent of a dreadful inspirational quote that Instagram loves so much.”

A decade ago, with the rise of websites such as Perez Hilton, Just Jared and TMZ, the appetite for celebrity photographs increased. The link between publicists and photo agencies strengthened and clothes played a key role. “Forget ‘Frankie Say Relax’ – I lay the blame for celebs’ love affair with slogan tees directly at the feet of Paris and Nicky Hilton, who wore ‘Team Aniston’ and ‘Team Jolie’ outside LA boutique Kitson in 2005,” says Heat magazine news editor Issy Sampson.

Celebrities began to use this blurred private/public space to create a visual dialogue, whether it was wearing a slogan T-shirt, a baggy top to indicate a possible pregnancy, or being seen without a significant piece of jewellery (the celebrity missing wedding ring, a perennial tabloid story). It was perfect for websites: they could editorialise the pictures, creating a story around the garment.

“Before Twitter and Instagram, the best way to get your message out there without issuing a publicist-approved statement was to get caught by TMZ with a slogan T-shirt,” says Sampson.

As the online tabloids flourished, the sassily sloganed T-shirts of designer Henry Holland (who began his career on Sneak magazine, a teen version of Heat) gained popularity. Holland’s designs harked back to the tongue-in-cheek sensibility of Katharine Hamnett in the 80s and presaged the reflective, hall-of-mirrors world that Twitter and Instagram would create. In 2006, when designer Giles Deacon appeared at his London fashion week show in Holland’s black-and-white “UHU GARETH PUGH” shirt, it began a new age of sartorial commentary.

On the catwalk the slogan has never gone out of fashion. “Slogans on clothes have been used as a way of attracting attention and getting a point across (whether political or ironic) for years and years and years,” says Barron. “Recently it has been popular in menswear, mainly thanks to Christopher Shannon’s signature witty phrases or slogans, but that Vetements’ literal DHL T-shirt brought it into womenswear too, and now has become part of their repertoire.”

Celebrity shirts: getting the message off their chest
Rihanna wearing a Princess Diana top in New York. Photograph: Buzz Foto/Rex/Shutterstock

There seem to be three key types of celebrity T-shirt slogans. The first features an image of another celebrity and indicates a twinning with that person: Rihanna sporting a Princess Diana T-shirt, or model Jourdan Dunn casting herself as a supermodel with a top featuring the names Naomi, Kate, Cara, Jourdan. The second is the existential crisis top, such as Ben Affleck or Megan Fox signalling their marriage woes (“I give what I have. I make what I am” and “I need more space” respectively). The third, like Hiddleston’s shirt, indicates their relationship status, like the sartorial version of a Facebook update: Miley Cyrus wearing a T-shirt that sported Chris Hemsworth’s surname, or Kristen Stewart wearing Robert Pattinson’s “Irie” shirt, because a shared wardrobe means true love.

More recently, Rita Ora’s sheer bikini top featuring two lemon emojis fuelled speculation that she was the other woman in Jay Z’s life and part of the narrative of Beyoncé’s Lemonade album.

Back to Hiddleswift though, Sampson is sceptical. “If he really loved her, he’d be posting loved-up, carefully filtered selfies online – that’s how it works in 2016.”

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