The Victoria and Albert Museum in London receives more than three million visitors a year, holds exhibitions on subjects as varied as plywood and Pink Floyd, and is famed for its documentation of historical art and fashion. However, one arm of the V&A recently acquired an unlikely and very up-to-date item: a plain white T-shirt, featuring the word “Corbyn” in a mock up of the famous Nike swoosh logo.
The V&A’s Design, Architecture and Digital Department has been acquiring items that explore public life. The T-shirt, made by Bristol Street Wear, is now part of the V&A’s Rapid Response Collection, which aims to explore how design, architecture and technology can be affected global political and social events.
Corinna Gardner, the acting keeper of the department, says the Rapid Response Collection aims to acquire material objects while they’re still the subject of conversation. “It’s always about what’s bubbling up. It’s about how design enables us to access contemporary social issues.”
The blank white T-shirt features the Labour leader’s name in bright red ink, above the “swoosh” tick and in place of the Nike brand name. Tristram Hunt, the current director of the V&A and a Corbyn critic in his previous role as the MP for Stoke-on-Trent, told the Guardian dryly that its inclusion was a “rather strong statement of our belief in curatorial autonomy”. Other items that the team have acquired include a pussyhat from the 2017 Women’s March, and the flag representing the refugee team which competed in the 2016 Olympic games.
This T-shirt was particularly interesting to Gardner and her colleagues because of Bristol Street Wear’s location. Bristol has a massive youth population and voted overwhelmingly for Labour. The company, which donated the T-shirt to the V&A, is run by two friends in Bristol, both of whom “dabble in all kinds of creative things,” as one of the friends, who asked to remain anonymous, told the New Statesman.
“We started off Bristol Street Wear as just another T-shirt project we were working on,” he says. “But it was around election time, and we came up with this design and we knew it was a great one. We didn’t know whether we wanted to be a political vehicle. Then we said fuck it, why not, and threw it out there.”
The T-shirt sold far better than its creators anticipated, he says: “It’s relevant for people who are interested in politics but don’t wear suits. You log onto social media and you see this huge, young demographic wearing it everywhere – but even here, you see Shannon down on the council estate wearing it, and then them big DJs and musicians too.”
Much of this is down to Corbyn’s reputation as an anti-establishment hero – “the absolute boy” who cares about the ordinary person. This easily lends itself to a cheeky rip-off of a big corporation’s logo. The V&A’s Gardner adds that this is part of the reason why the museum acquired this shirt and not some of the others. “It’s a T-shirt that people are wearing to identify themselves with a particular political figure with a sense of identity,” she says. “Corbyn has adopted this idea of a non-politician.”
Of course, fashion has long been political. Hippies wore colourful tie-dyed dresses and flowers in their hair to show they belonged to a “tribe” of similarly-minded people. British punks had a very identifiable look – safety pins, ripped trousers, tartan – to highlight their anarchist leanings.
Streetwear itself, although now arguably a nebulous and commercialised term, has always been explicitly focused on a youth subculture, but has often incorporated poltical themes. In an interview with HighSnobiety, Chris Gibbs, one of the founders of the early American street wear scene, pointed out that street wear came about because many established brands didn’t want young black people wearing their designs, so designers started making clothes for their communities. It was a way to express being “woke” in the form of an explicitly political, subversive message printed on a unisex blank white T-shirt, like a uniform for nonconformists.
Gardner points out that slogan tees have been at the forefront of sartorial trends for a while. Supreme released a shirt in 2016 which encouraged its wearers to get together with friends and say no to “racists, sexist pigs, to authority figures”. Hypepeace (a riff on the word Hypebeast used to describe someone who follows streatwear fashion obsessively) asked if people could channel the passion they felt for their street wear brands towards justice, by casting the popular brand Palace’s logo in the colors of the Palestinian flag and dedicating profits to a youth organisation based in Ramallah in the West Bank.
Gardner says that the Rapid Response Collection she curates is “about how material things are articulations of our contemporary circumstances”. For the boys behind Bristol Street Wear, whether or not they will make more slogan T-shirts will come down to just those circumstances. “This isn’t about cash, this is about putting out a positive message and we set out to do what we wanted to do. But if something worthwhile comes up that we believe in, then why not?”