A Comprehensive Guide to the Protest Tees of New York Fashion Week

lot has happened between September 2016 and February 2017. A reality-TV bulldozer became president of the United States, sparking one of the largest protests in the country’s history. He instituted a travel ban against seven Muslim-majority nations that invited more wide-sweeping protests at the nation’s airports. He antagonized allies. Eighteen million stand to lose health-care coverage if he moves forward with his campaign promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. People are scared, and yet the show must go on. Or shows.

We’re talking about New York Fashion Week, where, like creatives in other industries, designers were faced with the challenge of how to continue with business as usual under these circumstances. For many, the answer was a familiar one: T-shirts bearing political messages.

Take Prabal Gurung, who sent models down the runway in soft-knit tees that declared “The future is female,” “I am an immigrant,” “Our minds, our bodies, our power,” “Revolution has no borders,” “Stronger than fear,” “Nothing more, nothing less,” “Awake,” and more.

"In the good old days, fashion was an escape and a fantasy, and all of that is gone. The world we live in is so uncertain, people are really taking to action,” designer Gurung, who was raised in Nepal, told Vanity Fair this week. “I think what fashion has a responsibility to provide not an escape, but a reality. An optimistic reality.”

Gurung’s T-shirts were directly inspired by the Women’s March in New York, which he attended with hundreds of thousands of other people on January 21, less than a month before his runway show. “I feel like this country has given me an opportunity that no other country could do, and I owe it to this country,” he said, explaining the impetus for the shirts. “After creating this platform, that I speak up when I see there’s justice not being done, or when I feel like I can use my voice.”

Message tees are at least as old as 1948, when “Dew It for Dewey” decorated T-shirts for U.S. presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey. They have even grown in popularity on runways in recent seasons, but their messages have made a stark leap of late. Whereas last fall’s crop offered pointed, if vague (and possibly ironic) language—including “Futuresex” and “Canned Candies” at Peter Saville, “Hustler” and “Wench” at Hood by Air, “Thriving” at Baja East, and “Love” at Michael Kors—the post-Trump batch has left little to chance. (Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior tee from her September 2016 debut, which read, “We should all be feminists,” was something of an early harbinger of what was to come this season.) The tone has been one of inclusion and resistance—one that’s less cute, and more in line with protest tees of the 1970s and 1980s. Besides Gurung’s ad-hoc protest march, Christian Siriano sent a shirt that read “People are people” (a Depeche Mode song from 1984) down his runways. “We need leaders” and “Make America New York” proclaimed bomber jackets and red hats, respectively, at Public School. "We are all human beings” was the word at Creatures of Comfort.

So was this all just T-shirt activism, well, T-shirt activism? Possibly. But by and large, the designers who wore their statements on their sleeves (and chests and heads) tend have a track record of action. Gurung bristled at the general public’s tendency to look down at fashion as frivolous.

“We’re a multi-billion-dollar business,“ he said. “Not only is my position as a brand to make 90 percent of my clothes in New York, I’m an immigrant. I have a foundation back in Nepal that educates more than 200 children, from in-mates children to street-workers children. Yes, I make beautiful clothes and that brings me joy, but all these other things also bring me joy.”

learn more

Chris Alexakisart, government, U.S.A.