A look at why graphic tees are an apt choice in 2020: Self-expression, activism, and more

A look at why graphic tees are an apt choice in 2020: Self-expression, activism, and more

Slogans and subversion

Text: Emily Heng

Image: Instagram | @songofstyle

To say the fashion industry is in a bit of a pickle would be putting it lightly. The sphere has been rife with news of multiple brand closures (Sies Marjan, Matter), files for bankruptcy (J.Crew, True Religion), and plans for downsizing (H&M) since COVID-19 hit; a downward trajectory with no plans of slowing as the pandemic continues to decimate the economy. Perhaps it's just me, but its spiral — while hard to watch — feels inevitable, somehow. Financial instability tends to quell all hankerings for frivolities and fripperies, of which luxury goods firmly cements itself under. Hey, in times like these, us plebs are hardly dressed to impress. In fact, getting dressed in anything that doesn't come with an elasticated waistband is a feat in itself.

It's a sentiment I've held all throughout quarantine; one that has yet to abate even after retail stores have opened their doors in phase 2. The only exception to my (self-imposed) shopping hiatus: tees. Or, to be more specific, graphic tees. The humble T-shirt, against all odds, has evaded my iron-fisted grasp over my bank balance, wriggling its way into my wardrobe despite the possibility of delayed shipping.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one. Merch Aid, a nonprofit that pairs graphic designers with small businesses to create and sell T-shirts disclosed in an interview with The Cut that they've been experiencing a boom in sales. "We've had a couple of times where we're restocking merch at 9am, and it's 9.01am and hasn't refreshed yet, and we're getting DMs from people like, 'Where is it?!'" said producer, Alexa McClanahan. "The idea of getting something that is unique has resonated well."

What gives? Well, here's my theory. The first being that we're all looking to offerings that grant comfort; anything that grants a sense of personal connection in a period that is both volatile and uncertain. Puttering about in an oversized tee as I #WFH is a reassuring thought, made even more so when said shirt is emblazoned with a design that advocates fair employment rights for migrant workers. Not only does it highlight a cause I'm passionate about, it can also help incite conversation with those less aware of the situation at hand. See: when repeated washing of aforementioned tee had prompted my mother to ask about it.

There's also the matter of activism. Historically, graphic T-shirts have served as a form of protest, a type of expression that associates you with a specific movement or group. Hell, in 1973, The New York Times even dubbed it 'the medium for the message'. Bearing in mind recent events surrounding the #BLM movement and the "controversies" of the Singapore General Election (aka the investigation of Raeesah Khan), it comes as no surprise that people are choosing to showcase their stance through their apparel.

Not forgetting, of course, that graphic tees have proven to be handy way to express one's support for local businesses. You can show your love for Middle Eastern modern eatery, Artichoke, for instance, by scooping up their COVID-19 tees advising folks to "stay home FFS", or specialty coffee joint, Kurasu, who has a shirt displaying an artistic rendering of their coffee brewing process. Such purchases feel altruistic, I find; where we think of it as a way of giving back to businesses we hold dear to our hearts.

All in all, the influx of graphic tees in my closet feels like a turning point, of sorts. A statement that declares my reluctance to be sucked into the fast fashion cycle, as well as a promise to be more conscious in my shopping choices. Whether that holds up when high-street labels kick off their sales season, however, remains to be seen. Fingers crossed.