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Blog / Style & trends / Political T-Shirts That Took the World by Storm

Style & trends

Political T-Shirts That Took the World by Storm

Political T-Shirts That Took the World by Storm
Vinsenta Sleitere

By Vinsenta Sleitere

8 min read

Political tees are known for making appearances in riots, but they’re also about showing support to people and causes we believe in, such as civil rights movements, environmental protests, or strikes. Fighting for a cause is a way for people to stand up for themselves and others to create a better world for us all. In a way it’s also a rebellion, or an attempt to challenge the status quo.

In this article, we’ll discover the importance of expressing your opinion (and doing it respectfully) through political merchandise, and take a look at a few bold examples throughout history.

The importance of having a voice

As humans, we’re born in a community, we grow up in a community, and spend our lives in a community as well. Scientific American suggests that “we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.” If you’re separated from someone you love for a longer period of time, you’d begin to miss them, right? That’s your necessity for social bonds kicking in.

The whole world, in fact, is full of opinions. As Alexander Hamilton once said: “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” Having a voice is a means of connection, that’s why people with similar interests flock together: football fans, Guns’n’Roses admirers, knitting enthusiasts, you name it! Having similar interests provides us with a sense of belonging. We connect with each other, we feel understood, and our social environment is at ease. 

Luckily, there are many ways in which we can connect with one other and express ourselves: through words, drawings, photos, music, dance, and more. Another popular way to express yourself is through fashion. Printed t-shirts with slogans have been around for quite some time and have become increasingly popular. But where did the first printed t-shirt come from and how did the slogan shirt trend begin?

A (very) brief history of the printed political t-shirt

It all started back in 1948, when t-shirts were primarily used as men’s undergarments. Printed t-shirts didn’t exist back then, and even if they did, nobody would have been able to see the design under the dress shirt anyway.

The 1948 US presidential campaign was a milestone for slogan t-shirts. Thomas Dewey’s political t-shirt design “Dew it with Dewey” got quite the recognition. Even though Dewey lost this election to Harry Truman, he made a different victory that year—his campaign t-shirt is now known as one of the oldest printed t-shirts.

Dewey political t-shirt design
Source: Blogspot

The popularity of t-shirts significantly rose in the 1950s, when Marlon Brando wore a t-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) along with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Marlon Brando t-shirt
Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire
Source: NewRepublic

The t-shirts were plain, but it was quite revolutionary for people to wear them as if they were independent articles of clothing. Maybe Dewey’s campaign t-shirts had nothing to do with these movies, but I like to think that he managed to become a bit of an influencer—perhaps that’s yet another win?

Taking a stand has become an essential part of our day-to-day lives and our t-shirts have gotten political as well. In the next few sections, we’ll briefly cover three niches political t-shirts have made their way into. 

Political t-shirts and music

You’ve probably seen people wear The Ramones or any other band t-shirt, and maybe you own one yourself. Some people wear band shirts because they just like the music, but sometimes it’s more than just expressing your taste in music; it’s also about fashion and attitude.

As history shows, music tends to go hand in hand with bold statements and politics. In a 1966 interview, John Lennon said that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” That was pretty daring for the sixties. Even though the UK didn’t seem to mind Lennon’s remark (after all, he was just 25 at the time and enjoying his fame), it backfired in the US. People were not happy with the young pop-star’s claims, so they did the one thing they could—they protested.

The Beatles Jesus political riot posters
 Source: RollingStone

If this picture were taken 50 years later, the protesters would probably be using political merch as well, like t-shirts, campaign buttons, and custom political stickers. Since the idea of printed t-shirts was not as popular in 1966 as it is today, people used political posters instead to express their point of view (in this case, dissatisfaction). 

Speaking of rebellion, once upon a time in 1970s Britain, the country’s economic crisis set off a little movement called punk. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, together with Malcom McLaren, manager of the legendary punk rock band Sex Pistols, created a clothing store called SEX. Very straight-forward. I can only imagine how bold it seemed in 1977.

This punk rock power couple definitely took the world by storm. Westwood played with gender stereotypes, political concepts, and included sexual references and even totalitarian symbols in her art. She wanted to give the world a taste of rebellion, danger, and make the punk concept fashionable. The famous God Save The Queen shirt (named after a Sex Pistols song) managed to do exactly that: it had the riot, the attitude, and of course, the style. 

God Save The Queen Vivienne Westwood Political t-shirt design
Source: Ultimate Guitar

With great art comes great mockery. Westwood’s design received so much recognition that others got inspired to make similar, often punny designs. You can find plenty of similar shirts online starring other well-known faces: from politicians to Freddie Mercury and even Mr. Bean.

God Save The Queen political t-shirt design Freddie Mercury
Source: Amazon

Political t-shirts and activism

In 1983, fashion designer Katherine Hamnett launched her famous “CHOOSE LIFE” t-shirt. When asked about the meaning of this slogan t-shirt, Hamnett explained that “It’s the central tenet of Buddhism. My sister introduced me to it. We thought we’re going to change the world!” This slogan is nowadays interpreted in numerous ways (like in Europe, it’s associated with the movie Trainspotting). Despite various interpretations, Hamnett’s main idea for this slogan t-shirt was to spread the word on acceptance, tolerance, peace, and love for all.

The t-shirt was a tool to motivate the world to stand up against war and destruction. As the shirt took off, George Michael wore it in the Wham! music video Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. The t-shirt was also featured in Queen‘s music video for their song Hammer to Fall. It’s safe to say that this slogan really lived life to its fullest.

George Michale Choose Life tee
Source: Pinterest

Katherine Hamnett, a master of creating engaging slogan shirts, said that

“If you want to get the message out there, you should print it in giant letters on a t-shirt.” 

It’s been almost 40 years, but this statement is still true. Choose your words, put them on your shirt, and it’s guaranteed people will notice them in the street. It’s not only the words that work in getting the message across, it’s also images that do the trick. Sometimes it might be tricky creating fresh ideas for your shirt, but it’s worth brainstorming a little to come up with something extraordinary.

While on the subject of big letters and unique content, you’ve probably seen this logo. It’s born in Europe and has risen to world-wide recognition.

Antinuclear movement logo
Source: Wikipedia

It’s simple, easy-to-read, and certainly effective in getting the word out. It’s called The Smiling Sun and it’s a symbol for anti-nuclear power movement.

This symbol, created by a 21-year-old activist from Denmark in 1975, has become one of the most recognizable symbols worldwide. 

If we look at color psychology, we can see that yellow expresses openness and activity, but red excites people. The intention of the design was to create a friendly logo that calls for communication by dialogue, and the colors do a good job drawing attention to the image while showing openness and serenity at the same time.

Political protest t-shirt
Source: Wikipedia

The logo is used all over the world and has been translated into more than 40 languages. It’s a good example of how a small, simple logo can be used to express your opinion in a friendly, open-minded way.

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Political t-shirts and pop culture

Political campaigns and voting are a part of our culture. You can see political themes on TV shows, and even high schoolers are eager to vote for their class president or homecoming queen and king. Usually the winners are the ones who have a defined, compelling message that they manage to get out louder and faster than their competitors.

A little goes a long way when it comes to winning people over. Take this quote from Napoleon Dynamite:

Pedro: Vote for me, and all your wildest dreams will come true.

Of course, Pedro was exaggerating. The point is, however, that strong statements like this can inspire people to act—like vote for you or support your cause. What’s even more effective? Putting your statement on a t-shirt.

Vote Pedro Napoleon Dynamite Election t-shirt
Source: More Than The Curve

The election, no matter how big or small, plays a vital role in our sense of connection—by voting we stand up for our values and shape our social environment.

Mean Girls Movie Voting
Source: Pinterest

Whether you wish to create a solid, strong-willed campaign t-shirt to show what you believe in, or you simply want to create one that’s funny, easy-going, and relatable, go for it! But before you start creating your best slogan t-shirt, here are the dos and don’ts of political merch content.

Creating designs for political merch

If you’re passionate about communicating your thoughts, adding custom political t-shirts to your store can be a good way of earning money while doing what you love. Express your political beliefs, but be respectful. Always take into account creative rights of others and remember that your political t-shirt content should comply with the right of publicity, trademark, and copyright laws

The safest way to go about creating designs for any print-on-demand product is to create unique artwork. If you don’t want to spend time creating complex designs, you can always create your custom content with our Design Maker.

Let’s say I’m a member of a Fresh Cucumber Club (which doesn’t exist, but would be cool if it did) and want to run for president. To create a successful campaign I need merch, but have no graphic design skills. So what can I do? 

Instead of trying to learn Photoshop overnight, I can turn to the Design Maker and create fun, simple and stylish designs in a matter of minutes. What’s really neat is that I can already see what my campaign design will look like on the t-shirt.

Vote Fresh Cucumbers

In case you’re considering using other people’s designs, keep in mind you have to ask the artist for permission to use, display, and resell their work. You can use designs with names and faces of politicians, but note that the designs you use also have to comply with our content rules, like avoiding images and texts that are hateful or obscene. To find out more about the content you can print with Printful, check out our Acceptable Content Guidelines and Terms of Service.

Have fun creating your political t-shirts, wear them loud, wear them proud, but remember to be respectful of other voices as well.

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By Vinsenta Sleitere on May 26, 2020

Vinsenta Sleitere

Vinsenta is a Marketing Project Manager at Printful. She has a degree in Translation & Interpreting, as well as an MBA. Her passions include storytelling, business administration, and self-development.

Vinsenta is a Marketing Project Manager at Printful. She has a degree in Translation & Interpreting, as well as an MBA. Her passions include storytelling, business administration, and self-development.