Katharine Hamnett – the woman behind fashion’s most famous slogan tees – reveals her guide to raising consciousness through clothing, and discusses the vital importance of voting for free education and the NHS
“T-shirts are some of the strongest messaging tools for consciousness raising,” say feted British designer Katharine Hamnett, speaking over the phone from her London office. “You can’t not read them, and once you’ve read them, they stay in your brain, churning around, hopefully making you think and act.” Hamnett should know: in the early 80s, shortly after founding her eponymous label, she pioneered the concept of slogan T-shirts bearing political messages in bold graphic lettering. They proved a huge hit, giving a voice to a disenfranchised generation at a time when cruise missile proliferation, the Falklands war and the burgeoning AIDS crisis cast a gloomy shadow over their future. ‘Choose Life’, ‘Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now’ and ‘Use a Condom’ emblazoned the chests of everybody from George Michael to Naomi Campbell, and soon Hamnett’s calls for action were being seen around the globe.
Ever since, the vocally left-wing designer, passionate environmentalist and devout pacifist has continued to champion the power of messaging through fashion, constantly creating new T-shirts, through sustainable, UK-based printers Rapanui, to raise awareness and funding for causes close to her heart. “People often try and say, Oh do this one. Do that one,” she says with a laugh, “But it always ends up being something that just comes out of my mouth.” This includes everything from ‘Jail Blair’, ‘Save the Elephants’ and ‘Sanction South Africa’ to ‘Leaders Suck’, ‘Stop and Think’ and ‘No War’ (“which apparently inspired the Stop the War coalition to form,” she adds with audible amazement). One of her latest endeavours has been the brilliantly successful ‘Choose Love’ campaign, in collaboration with Help Refugees, which sees all proceeds sent directly to the groundbreaking charity.
“People often try and say, “Oh do this one. Do that one,” she says with a laugh, “But it always ends up being something that just comes out of my mouth.”
Today, however, she – like many of us – has only one topic on her mind: tomorrow’s General Election. Hamnett is a keen advocate of Jeremy Corbyn and has produced two T-shirts in support of the Labour party, the first bearing the words, ‘Vote Tactically’, a reference to using your vote in a strategic, location-dependent manner (see here for more on that); the second reading ‘Choose NHS’.
“The whole point of saving the NHS and keeping it in public hands instead of it being a profit organisation is so that it can deliver care at cost, rather than cost plus profit,” she explains of the latter. “A whole population of this country have worked all their lives, eyes down and noses clean, on the deal that they would be looked after in their old age with a decent pension and have world class health care whenever they needed it, which is being taken away from them. These people are being betrayed by the Conservative government and it’s outrageous.” We need only look to America as a deterrent, Hamnett continues: “21 million people are soon going to be without any form of health insurance or any health service at all. We can’t go down that path!”
Here, as the sun goes down on what could just be the final day of Tory rule, we reveal Hamnett’s guide to political fashion, tracing the history and legacy of her statement tees, and the vital importance of voting Labour.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO BE RIPPED OFF, MAKE IT COUNT
“I first started making the slogan T-shirts in the 80s. We were making tons of money selling clothes, but I was getting annoyed because my designs were always being copied. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something that will make me laugh if it’s copied; something that would be a good thing to see replicated.’ So I came up with huge T-shirts that you could read from 200 yards away, carrying strong political, environmental and social messages. We encouraged people to copy them, to put their own spin on them. That’s how Paul Morley came up with the ‘Frankie Says Relax…’ T-shirts – some people still think I made those. Anyway, it worked; the T-shirts are still being ripped off today.”
DON’T WORRY IF SOME PEOPLE DON’T GET IT...
“The designs were pretty contentious when we first started doing them, even though it was just elementary stuff like, ‘No War’, ‘Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now’, ‘Save the World’. At that time I’d just made it up the fashion strata and American Vogue came to visit me in my showroom. They walked in and said, ‘Oh Hi, Katharine,’ and then they saw these T-shirts. Suddenly they went quiet, spun on their heels and walked out.”
“American Vogue came to visit me in my showroom. They walked in and said, ‘Oh Hi, Katharine,’ and then they saw these T-shirts. Suddenly they went quiet, spun on their heels and walked out”
IF THE MESSAGE IS POWERFUL, IT’LL SPEAK FOR ITSELF
“I was amazed when George Michael and Roger Taylor wore them in their music videos. The media was really tightening up under Thatcher, you could feel the fingers closing around the throat of freedom of speech, so I thought even one photo of somebody wearing one would be great. I never really thought they’d sell.
Once on Top of the Pops a guy in the audience was wearing a ‘Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now’ T-shirt, and you could see by the way the production team positioned the cameras that they were trying to hide him behind a pillar. Then, on the next week’s show, the whole audience was wearing one! It was the most amazing feeling. You go in thinking, ‘I don’t care if I’m the only person putting this out there, these things have to be said.’ And then whoosh, you realise that you’re not alone; that we have so much more in common than we have apart.”
IF YOU CAN’T FIND A STOCKIST, HAND THEM OUT FOR FREE
“In the 80s I made a series of really nice, white silk T-shirts saying things like, ‘US Go Home’ and sent them to Joseph [Ettedgui] to see if he’d like them, but he said no and sent them straight back. So we took them down to Greenham Common and gave them away to protesters. To start off with people were really suspicious, they thought there was a catch, but in the end they put them on. Then they rimmed the perimeter fence of the military base and started singing at sunset. The American soldiers came out and stood, listening – it was really profound. The hairs on my arms stood up!”
USE A PRESS OPPORTUNITY TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
“The most famous one I wore was to a reception at 10 Downing Street to meet Margaret Thatcher; it’s an albatross I carry round with me! That was almost a practical joke. I really didn’t want to go: the Falklands war was appalling, the miners’ strike… she was a monstrous woman! Anyway at the last minute, I got that statistic from a European opinion poll, "58% Don’t Want Pershing", put it on a T-shirt and the rest is history.”
WHEN IT COMES TO SUPPORTING GOOD CAUSES, THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
“We’ve printed more than 60 slogans because there are so many things that need to be said. Like we did ‘Jail Tony,’ which got us into quite a lot of trouble; we’re doing one that says, ‘Don’t Shoot’, back and front, which I want to give to Black Lives Matter. And I’m thinking of doing one to help Indigenous tribes fighting against the Dakota Pipeline…. And of course, we’re supporting Labour massively. I’m wearing an ‘NHS not Trident’ T-shirt now.”
VOTE LABOUR, AND MAKE EDUCATION FREE
“We need young people to understand that this is the one chance in a generation to vote in a government that will cancel tuition fees. The average age of repaying your tuition fees is 60: they hang around your neck your whole life. You can’t study anything that’s marginal, culturally, because you’ll never be able to repay it. I’ve been so lucky in my life: I’ve played with all the toys I could ever have wanted to, been all over the world and it’s all thanks to having a free education.”
“We need young people to understand that this is the one chance in a generation to vote in a government in that will cancel tuition fees”
WHEN IN DOUBT, PUT IT ON A T-SHIRT
“T-shirts are great, do it sustainably and do it with love. Put it on a T-shirt and put it on the back as well as the front. Write it everywhere. Words are marvellous. But it’s got to be more than the sum of its parts; it’s got to come alive, to bring out people’s natural beauty. It’s got to be a gift.”