It’s impossible to think of Y2K fashion without remembering graphic tees, and their quippy, self-referential slogans. Britney Spears’s “Dump Him,” and Paris Hilton’s “Stop Being Desperate” tops remain some of the era’s most relevant iconography. Not only were these slogan T-shirts a means of expression in pre-social media times, but in an era when celebrities were more often seen than heard, they could speak to the intricacies of a star’s life. Take the “Naomi Campbell Hit Me And I Loved It!” shirt that the supermodel wore in 2005, or Julia Roberts’s “A Low Vera,” both of which poked at their personal lives via just a few very choice words.
Graphic tees first sprung up in fashion in the 1980s thanks to British designer Katharine Hamnett’s block letter slogan shirts. “She was the first who put graphic sayings touching upon the political plights of the times, and this gave her worldwide recognition,” says Johnny Valencia, owner of Pechuga Vintage. “However graphic tees predate Hamnett by about 40 years in politics, film, and the military.”
Through the 2000s, graphic tees overran every children’s and teen’s section, from Limited Too to dELIA*s. But over the decade, the cutesy cartoons and irritating slogans like “Daddy’s Princess” or “My dog ate my homework” became tiresome. The uncouthness of wearing a purposefully obtuse T-shirt, like Paris Hilton’s “Stop Being Desperate” and “Queen of the Universe” tees, had officially lost its charm.
By the mid- to late-2010s, the women who wore these shirts in their teens grew up, and their slogans evolved with their interests. Whether it was political taglines like “The Future Is Female,” or sassy mom merch (as dubbed by Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker) like “Mamacita Needs a Margarita,” the blunter, sassier tees of the 2000s were left behind, in favor of those that shared more about the wearer’s reality or core values. While many of the shirts began with good intentions, they became fodder for memes. Post-2016 election, one-time feminist rallying cries like “I’m With Her,” became the neoliberal equivalent of a “Live, Laugh, Love” sign.
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