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By chris 4 years ago
Home  /  Black Fashion  /  REVOLUTIONS THAT FIT TO A TEE

I think we can all agree–graphic tees are having a moment. They’re everywhere from the racks at Forever21 to Dolce & Gabbana runway shows. But there’s one place the graphic tee trend isn’t new: Harlem. Graphic tees have long been an integral piece of Harlem’s fashion landscape. On 8th Avenue alone, from 116th to 135th street, I’ve counted no fewer than five t-shirt shops. Their products showcase every iteration of black life, from black Mickey Mouse to Malcolm X quotes.

It makes sense. Harlem has always been a place where black people used fashion to make bold statements. For the ambitious blacks who call the historic neighborhood home, fashion has worked hand in hand with education and artistry to establish a more recognizable position within a racialized society. Harlemites have historically fought feeling small and silent by dressing loud and large. Their style choices have demanded that others recognize and respect their blackness, and they’ve screamed that black lives mattered.

Which is why it’s no surprise that an article of clothing has become a call to action at every Black Lives Matter rally, protest, and march. Like the berets and afros that became symbolic of the1970’s Civil Rights Movement, graphic tees have become representative of today’s revolutionary sentiment. Sadly, many of the social issues of yesteryear remain the same, but the 1970s’ revolutionary aesthetic (i.e. the afro) has become too mainstream in 2017 to be considered political.

So, what makes the graphic tee the perfect choice for modern movements? Well, it’s the most democratic garment of all time. Anyone can create a fashionable article of clothing by simply accessing a blank t-shirt and a screen printer, without one iota of fashion training. That makes it a convenient canvas for important commentary.

Donning a graphic tee is like wearing a permanent placard on your chest, which is particularly important for people who don’t feel heard (i.e. I can’t breathe). Physically wearing your message in bold letters ensures that it can’t be ignored. Not to mention, today’s political activism is more blatant and in your face than ever before. Unlike in the past, when the silent symbolism of a dashiki or a closed fist felt like the safest forms of protest, it’s now acceptable to have your feelings, opinions, and ideas prominently displayed on your clothing. Thanks to Twitter and the Interwebs, we’re as uncensored as ever (See: Our President).

Not to mention, t-shirts work because they’re comfortable. Yes, we’re not scaling fallen trees in the jungle like Che Guevara, but physical comfort is still important to today’s revolution, given how emotionally uncomfortable we already feel. Not to mention, comfort is today’s prevalent fashion trend. If the ‘60s were all about go-go boots and minis and the ‘80s centered around power dressing, today’s fashion is all about being consistently casual (See: athleisure wear and “Dressed Down Monday through Friday”). In stark contrast to the Black Panthers, in their leather jackets, suits, dresses and dress shoes, the casualization of current fashion has trickled down to rebellious wear.

T-shirts are also perfect revolutionary wear because they’re the most sentimental piece of clothing. For one, they easily convey the thoughts and attitudes of the wearer. Secondly, most people have strong feelings around their favorite shirts. 90% of Americans own a tee they refuse to throw away because of sentimental attachments. T-shirts are all about the feelings, and what better way to show your strong feelings than with an article of clothing you have a strong feeling for.

There’s no denying that t-shirts have become the perfect uniform for the Woke. What’s most interesting to me is how on trend revolutionary wear can be.And it feels less like co-option, but more like resistance has become more mainstream. What do you think? Leave a comment below and let’s start a dialogue. If you’re looking for a great Harlem inspired tee, check out my “Black Style Matters” tee here or these amazing Harlem based boutiques.


*Did you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald coined the name “T-shirt”? The author used the term in his 1920 novel, “This Side of Paradise” because of the shape the shirt made when laid out. Cheers for that, Ole Chap.

*The T-shirt was initially manufactured for and marketed to bachelors in 1904 because of its ease of use. “No safety pins — no buttons — no needle — no thread,” ran the slogan aimed at men with no wives and no sewing skills.

*As society grows, so does the sizing of a typical tee. The garment industry has to change the sizes almost every 10 years. A large shirt in 1970 is a small today.

  Black Fashion, Graphic Tees, Harlem, Revolutionary Wear,
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