November 8 is Election Day in the US, when a new President and Vice-President will be elected. To mark the occasion the TRC has mounted a small exhibition of T-shirts that promote or mock different candidates from America’s two major political parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. The nine T-shirts on display are typical examples of American political textiles. They portray the candidate’s face and a slogan. This slogan either casts the candidate as a responsible leader or as a foolish incompetent.
Slogans from successful past presidential campaigns might also be evoked, such as the “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” T-shirt (cotton/polyester, Honduras, 2016) on display. This was the 1948 campaign slogan of President Harry Truman. The donkey on the T-shirt is a symbol of the Democratic Party, and so shows the wearer’s affiliation to the party.
Textiles became a political issue earlier in this year’s campaign. Accusations to discredit Republican nominee Donald Trump were spread via social media this year, incorrectly stating that his campaign’s baseball caps, with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, were manufactured outside the US, in countries where labour is cheaper. But Trump does have a clothing line of men’s dress shirts, ties, suits and accessories, and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has used the fact that these textiles are indeed produced outside the US (in Bangladesh, Indonesia and China) to discredit Trump’s promise to protect American workers from foreign competition.
Also on display is a one-piece baby garment (cotton, US, 2016) sporting the official logo of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The logo (an H with an arrow) indicates that the textile is authorized by the Clinton campaign and sold to help finance the campaign. The baby garment also carries a US labour union symbol on its front, proof that it is made in the US by unionized workers.
The T-shirt itself has its roots in working class America. T-shirts originated from a 19th century one-piece, male undergarment called a union suit. By the late 19th century the garment had evolved into two pieces. The top piece, an inexpensive button-less shirt that could easily be removed and cleaned, was adopted by miners and dock workers as outer wear. At the beginning of the 20th century, the US Navy was issuing a white cotton T-shirt to be worn under sailors’ uniforms. The word ‘T-shirt’ first appears in American dictionaries in the 1920s.
You can learn more about the history of this iconic garment at the exhibit, which will be on display for two weeks. Don’t care for either Donald or Hillary? There’s a T-shirt for that, too, in the exhibit, with the slogan “None of the above.”
Shelley Anderson, 30 October 2016