If my body is a temple, then my chest is the altar. It is also a walking billboard, a haven for friends to cry on and a bawdy playground that makes me blush.
I consider it one of my assets, although when younger I plastered it with a buffet of kitsch brands and meaningless images. From my Expo '86 souvenir tee from elementary school, to my NKOTB (yes, that's New Kids on the Block) concert tee of my tweens to my "Esprit de Corps" shirts of high school days, my altar has worn many cotton banners. Now in my late twenties, I'm on a mission to plaster my mid-section with meaningful words and symbols.
Over the past decade I've collected over 25 ethical message tees -- some made ethically, many not. Every single one of them screams some sort of social or environmental message. Why the T-shirt as soapbox? How come I can't relinquish my "STAAR -- Students Taking Action Against Racism" shirt to Sally Anne, when my hope chest is brimming and my altar, ahem, changing? Well, it turns out T-shirts are loud.
Reads well, made better
"It's a sad thing actually. People feel voiceless. People subconsciously respond to world propaganda -- they create their own propaganda by wearing T-shirts with a message. It's a response to right-wing media," says Mo Salemy, co-founder and co-owner of Dadabase. Salemy, an Iranian*-Canadian, says this is the reason Dadabase's message tees have been so successful.
Other designers, Government Clothing (Dadabase's in house design company) plus Tsunami (a designer from Victoria) have produced thousands of politically charged tees. Government alone has produced nearly ten thousand politico tees while Tsunami supplies Lazy Susan's in East Vancouver, Studio 16 1/2 and the Fifty Fifty Arts Collective in Victoria. Government's shirts respond to world events like the war in Iraq and the conflict between Lebanon and Israel. Tsunami's tees are stamped with the classic "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."
Messages like "Main Street for Peace" and "I heart Banda Aceh" fly from the racks at a Dadabase. The most (in)famous print is the "Bush and the Gang: Fucking the World Tour," a black tee with white head shots of the Bush administration. So far Dadabase has printed over 9,000 Bush and the Gang shirts.
Salemy and Government Clothing don't try to force their politics down people's throats. When asked about the "I heart Palestine" shirt in the window last year, he was surprised I saw it because it was only there for a day or two. "I wasn't sure whether or not we should put it in the window."
People's reactions to message tees are really powerful, Salemy says. One day, a Jewish family from Boston came into the store. Instantly the son grabbed the 'I heart Palestine" shirt to try on. The dad argued with the mother as their son was in the change room. "I won't pay for that shirt," he said. The mother argued with him, saying he shouldn't push his beliefs on his son. When the son came out to model the tee the mother smiled and the dad didn't say anything. When it came time to pay, the father paid, Salemy took a snapshot and all left happy. Salemy sat on the sidelines the entire time revelling at the three different mindsets common in the Middle East today played out by the father, mother and son: the right-wing orthodox, the moderate and the left-wing radical.
And what about the ethics of how the Government tees are made? Most of the T-shirts are printed on American Apparel garments, says Salemy, because they are sweatshop free. The local economy also benefits from Dadabase's slogan shirts. All Government clothes are printed within blocks of the store, something Salemy notes with more than a hint of pride.
What I like the best about some message tees are the stories of their origins -- not only stories of their conception but also the causes they speak for.
As the older sister to three young brothers, I've attempted (and failed) to pass on my love for ethical slogan shirts to my brethren. Like Salemy, I get slightly breathless when thinking of bestowing my idealism to my siblings. This year for my middle brother's 17th birthday I decided to up the ante with his annual belated gift. During a trip to Victoria, I instantly fell in love with a boldly printed black hemp shirt at Shift Hemp Clothing. On the chest is the outline of the African continent, inside the continent reads: 75 million dead. Underneath it reads: "Extinct? Your Move."
My brother is an extremely intelligent button pusher -- he's been giving the finger to most establishments since birth so I thought he'd love it. He's also a fanatical mountain biker and snowboarder -- what better group to infect with a reminder that people are dying in Africa? I bought it for $18 and mailed it out. Proceeds from the shirt, I was told, would go to Cotlands Orphanage, a South African institution helping children left behind by HIV/AIDS.
Via the grapevine I heard that he didn't want to wear it until he knew what it meant. After an email exchange with Leyland Cecco, of the Oak Bay High Interact Club that printed the shirts, I told my bro about the cause and effect of this itchy but punchy shirt.
"To be honest, controversy sells, and it raises eyebrows," wrote Cecco, a grade 12 student at Oak Bay High School. "I felt that fashion was an effective medium to convey a strong political message and there would be a great demand for shirts that voiced an opinion."
Cecco then relayed the story of how Interact members attended a dinner lecture by Stephen Lewis a few months before, inspiring the student group to do something about the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The Stephen Lewis Foundation was affiliated with Cotlands, so the Interactors decided to raise some funds for the orphanage. So far the student group has sent $3500 to Cotlands and all but sold out of the Extinct? shirts.
When I told my brother about this, he was "stoked" and ready to explain what it meant to his biking and boarding buddies.
Why does wearing a political shirt feel so politically active and effective? According to Alvin Wasserman, a 30-year veteran of social marketing, campaign or message shirts can be effective -- as long as they drive the wearers/readers to someplace where they can act. "Shirts need to link to something else. A good website needs to be available with great interactivity so the effect of the shirts goes past a couple of washes."
Concentration is also key, Wasserman says. Shirts need to be printed and distributed in clusters around a key event or small geographical area.
Greenpeace practices some of the best "clustering" tactics. At many Greenpeace actions, the activists wear message tees. After the zodiacs are docked and the climbing ropes hung up, activist shirts bearing the logo of the particular campaign are then sold on the Greenpeace website.
Greenpeace's Kleercut T-shirt is one clustering success. Launched in November of 2004, the Kleercut -- Wiping Away Ancient Forests parodies Kimberly Clark's Kleenex brand and draws attention to how tissue products come from Canada's old growth Boreal forest.
"Generally T-shirts with a simple image such as a whale or simply the Greenpeace logo [are hot sellers]. The exception to this is the Kleercut – Wiping away Ancient Forests T-shirt...I think this is because it's a clever T-shirt design, taking aim at a corporate villain, and we have a strong campaign behind the shirt. This shirt has been a very strong seller for almost two years now across the country," explained Mona Coulvain, member services co-ordinator in Greenpeace's Toronto office.
Meanwhile, Greenpeace has forced its way into the boardrooms of Kimberly Clark and is making significant progress in changing forest practices in the Boreal. Clearly T-shirts embody a long history and even longer future as a campaign tool. And damn, are they cute.
So what happens when happens when your favourite cause doesn't have a T-shirt? There's always the do-it-yourself route.
A Vancouver-based company is making it easier for us to wear our beliefs on our backs, or for the shy among us, on our pillowcases. A web-based company, Mondonation makes custom T-shirts that have the word "believe" on the front and print the bearer's words of choice across the shoulders on the back. A dollar from the sale of each shirt can go to one of over 20 charities Mondonation is affiliated with. T-shirt aficionados can also make an additional donation to the charities via the Mondonation website.
"This is another way of connecting people," said Rose Rae, Mondonation's administrator. "Part of [our] philosophy is to generate community and conversation."
In June about 500 of Mondonation's custom-made belief T-shirts were wandering the streets of Vancity on the backs of international youth delegates. Mondonation kitted out all participants of the World Youth Forum, the World Urban Forum's youth conference, with 500 of its shirts. Youth from around the world had beliefs such as: "i believe we cannot change our past, but the future is in our power" and "i believe in global friendship" printed on the shirts.
If you really want to go the screen-print route, a bevy of DIY printers and print shops exist in Vancouver. A Google search for Vancouver and "screen printers" turns up hundreds of results. T-shirt wholesalers also make their home in Vancouver including Hemptown and Budget-T. Both these companies provide "lighter footprint" clothing options in the form of hemp, bamboo and organic cotton or sweatshop-free shirts. See the directions below on how you can set up your very own screen-printing shop, to swath your altar in words and images of action and change.
Miranda Post is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.
*This article originally referred to Mo Salemy as Iraqi-Canadian. He is in fact Iranian-Canadian. Corrected June 25, 2007.