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slinkyvagabond

Why you should get to know me: "When I am buzzed or sleepy my Southern accent intensifies."

Mass Disruption, Aisle 2
Designer Dissent Comes to Cambridge

Indulge me, I have some history to share. Then we'll talk about a new line of dissenter fashions based right here in town.

T-shirts, as we know them, were first observed keeping the French cooler and more comfortable than Americans during the First World War. The style was coveted and copied immediately as a preferable alternative to scratchy dense underwear. Simply made, the T was normalized by Sen. John F. Kennedy at the end of the war, rapidly eroticized by Brando and Dean, and promoted to the ranks of high fashion by the 1970s thanks to Jackie O. (for the most part). With so many people reaching for the same shirt, it was a only matter of time before the messages of T-shirts became varied enough to require being made explicit right on the front (and sometimes the back). Thus and since, the slogan T has enjoyed relative dominance in neighboring realms of fashion and media, to the point that it is now a form. By the early '80s, the sloganeering works of artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger had raised the T-shirt to the level of the blank canvas. This legacy continues to grow, though it is more of a dilution, or a melt. Irony: that hypertrophied '90s rhetoric, has summarily washed out and worn down the immediacy of the medium (no pun intended); insincere sentiments seem more likely to appear on equally facetious trucker caps. None of us, however, are stocking up on polo shirts and moving on, not yet.

The legitimacy of the T-shirt as a communicative form and its accessibility as a staple item in the retail world are exactly what David Rosen and his Reason8 label are seizing upon in planning their new (his third) line of clothing. The initial offerings are simple black shirts with understated designs in red, black and white. The familiar frankness of the slogans ("Got Democracy?" "One Nation Under Surveillance," "Silence is Complicity") paired with their minimal layouts and schemes evoke the rich history of the slogan T (especially Kruger), while poignantly playing with the unbearable discretion that today's Patriotism requires of well-behaved citizens. These shirts do not scream and shout, but gently counter rant-n-rave stereotypes of dissent by way of quiet infiltration.

Rosen calls his framework for designing shirts, quite practically, the math. "They are designed within the parameters of being worn by another person," he tells me. His calculations show that the viewership of the average T-shirt has about four to five seconds at roughly nine feet to encounter a given message. There is a sneakiness about the shirts that belies their unabashed legibility, and this is a characteristic that has followed Rosen's designs throughout his career. Rosen founded his first label, Affairs of State, in South Africa in the early '80s. Adorned simply with the slogan "Let's Share," the cut/make/trim garments were as quickly embraced by large department stores as they were banned for their understated criticism of the nation's racial divides. "It made me famous," Rosen said, "or infamous."

Following his time in South Africa, Rosen relocated to NYC in '86, continuing his work in fashion designs but gradually drawing away from overt political concerns and starting the David David label. Soon after, he relocated to Boston, a city known more for politics than its output of couture; his fusion of activism and design would not be on deferral for long. Angered and saddened by a peculiar climate of ignorance that was being nurtured by the media toward politics and human rights, Rosen's frustrations came to a hilt upon viewing recent footage of "collateral damage" - in this case, civilians attacked by US military forces conducting home-to-home searches. The footage moved him to resume his original approach to politicized design, marketing and, now, production - as none of Reason8's products are made in sweatshops.

One of Rosen's principal concerns is making the shirts available. The retail landscape is decidedly less porous than in the past (bedazzled AC/DC shirts somehow have firmer place on the shelves of large department stores than any of Rosen's designs). Slowly and surely, he is working them into the marketplace. Harvest Co-Op buyer Robbie Gray sees great potential in the shirts: "I like bringing in products that our customers will like," she said. "We call ourselves a community market, and I really believe the people who would appreciate these shirts are those who already shop here." Rosen sees a trend slowly emerging among buyers to reincorporate socially conscious fashions into their stock. "I think by next year, we'll be seeing peace signs at Macy's again," Rosen confided. With proper support, Rosen's designs will be poised to rescue the slogan T from ironic browbeating it has suffered, restoring significant resonance to simple and essential sentiments.

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