In 1983, Katharine Hamnett launched first of her protest T-shirts: they were designed to be copied, slogans and all, and read: CHOOSE LIFE, WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW, PRESERVE THE RAINFORESTS, SAVE THE WORLD, SAVE THE WHALES, EDUCATION NOT MISSILES, etc. Thanks to the excess media coverage, she was chosen as the designer of the year by the British Fashion Council the next year and was invited to the Downing Street to meet with the Prime Minister.
Hamnett was not a supporter of the-then PM Margaret Thatcher, and was reluctant to go. But she decided to seize the photo-op to make a political statement. The United States had recently deployed controversial Pershing II guided missile being in West Germany, and Hamnett wore a slogan T-shirt declaring “58 per cent Don’t Want Pershing”, specifically ensuring that the lettering on the shirt would stand out in photographs. She wore it under her stylish jacket, and removed the jacket just before meeting the prime minister. She made headlines the next day.
Vogue magazine called it one of the most iconic moments in fashion, but Hamnett admitted that her fashion statement didn’t make quite the impression on the Prime Minister that she hoped. Hamnett remembers: “She didn’t notice it at first, but then she looked down and made a noise like a chicken. Then quick as a fishwife she said: ‘Oh well we haven’t got Pershing here, so maybe you are at the wrong party’, which I thought was rather rude as she had invited me.”
Although she later became increasingly skeptical of whether T-shirts can make a difference, Katherine Hamnett enjoyed the idea of the copiers of her T-shirts unwittingly promoting her messages. In 2003 Hamnett sent models down the catwalk in London wearing T-shirts shouting “No War, Blair Out”, and thousands wore copycat T-shirts to the anti-war march before the invasion of Iraq. Hamnett concedes that there is also a danger with T-shirts (and marches) that they “give people the feeling that they have done something when they haven’t”.