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