Some years back, we bought a pair of black John Fluevog pumps in a second-hand store in San Francisco. They had chunky heels, peep toes, a psychedelic swirl at the vamp and they were the right size, but none of those features was the actual selling point. The best part of this find was the story printed on the soles. "If we move together, dance together..." it said in black serif on a beige background. "We'll stay together." It was that whiff of romance that sealed the deal, the promise that these batty shoes, a steal at $75, could lead one to true love, and only the person wearing them would know that her path to eternal happiness had been predetermined by the poetry embedded in her steps. Why, we wondered, didn't every brand print secret messages on their products?
Finally, it seems, in 2017, The Year of Our Need For Encouragement, Hope and Constant Mental-Emotional Fortification, the fashion world is catching up to old Fluevog. (The designer's Angel Soles are stamped with a guarantee to give cover from Satan, a great spiritual buffer that dovetails nicely with the brand's promise of unparalleled physical comfort.) Newer designers are reviving the technique in modern ways, weaving on-brand philosophical messages more subtly, and yet more powerfully, into their creations.
Of course, there have always been t-shirts with clever sayings written on them, words to live by, out there for all to see. Well, but no. Not always. It's hard to imagine, but not so long ago, people didn't wear words on their clothing at all. Less than a hundred years ago, you couldn't just look at a stranger and determine whether you'd be friends or not by the obscurity of the indie band whose tour dates were listed on the back of their shirt.
Like so many Twentieth Century trends, it probably began in the movies. The earliest known instance of lettering printed on clothing was in 1939 in The Wizard of Oz. Emerald City workers re-stuffing the scarecrow in preparation to meet the Wizard wore green t-shirts printed with the word "Oz." But the concept wouldn't really catch on until a generation or so later, after Marlon Brando and James Dean had made the t-shirt itself popular, and rock & roll bands, sports teams and political slogans began to make their way onto the chests of the masses. Free expression was the thing, and everyone was exercising their First Amendment right.
By the '70s and '80s, the practice was pretty commonplace. "I [heart] NY" was a popular one in the U.S. and around the world. In the U.K., they loved bold political statements. "If you want to get the message out there, you should print it in giant letters on a t-shirt," said Katherine Hamnett, designer of the "CHOOSE LIFE" t-shirt famously worn by George Michael and Andrew Ridgely in the Wham! video for "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." (Though perhaps not as famously as the shorts and neons they wore in the second half of the clip.)
Judging from the overall art direction of the video itself, a complete lack of subtlety seemed like a good idea at the time. It was the '80s after all. Lately, though, more thoughtful alternatives have emerged to the custom of wearing a generic political statement splashed in the middle of one's body in block lettering. Designers at all levels of the price-point spectrum are weaving words into garments and jewels in more elegant, understated ways. They seem to be taking cues from tattoo art with feminine scripts, interesting placement and more personal messages. The techniques and materials are more sophisticated too, with embroidery, beading, lacework and luxe fabrics replacing screen-printed 100% cotton. The effect is elegant, but clever, more whispered secret than all-caps exclamation.
Which isn't to say politics, nor boldness, have completely dropped out of the equation. Feminism in particular is out in full force as new designs bring tales of autonomy and ambition to women's clothing staples, not just tees, but blouses, jeans, jackets, dresses and hosiery. There are also a lot of self-love mantras finding their way onto clothing, or inside of it, with tags and linings offering words of wisdom known only to the wearer, or whomever she chooses to take her clothing off in front of.
There's something fun about being an onion, someone who keeps layers of secrets under her stylish garments, such that when you peel them off and look more closely, you uncover something that wasn't so obvious at first glance. Those revelations can be prescribed by designers who think to establish an intimate relationship with their customers by communicating through hidden copy, words the wearer can identify with and live by but not necessarily put on ready display.
Conversely, there seems to be an explosion of designs featuring copy that flaunts inner vulnerability and sorry-not-sorry flaw-ownership on the outside. "I regret nothing," it says in black embroidery on the white collar of a Reformation blouse, while a sweatshirt from LPA says "CRYING INSIDE" on the chest in shiny beaded lettering. If it was cool a generation ago to bandwagon onto a universal issue like human life-respect via your t-shirt, it's now considered clever to look inward, find your quirks and wear them passionately on your sleeve. This is so me right now, you say, slipping on a new look, a new mantra, a new intention.
Would you like your products to speak intimately with your customers? WE HAVE IDEAS