A brief history of the clapback T-shirt – i-D

Photo by Ricky Vigil M/GC Images, via Twitter and Christina Elliott/FilmMagic
During the week of her latest album launch, avant-popstar Charli XCX was lambasted by critics. But not for what one would expect. Crash — the album in question — received favourable reviews. What didn’t, however, and what stirred up a furor in critics of everything from film to politics, was a T-shirt. While leaving London’s Sexy Fish restaurant on the eve of Crash’s release, Charli was papped wearing a pink baby tee emblazoned with the phrase, “They don’t build statues of critics”. One commentator reviewed the tee: “lmao pathetic.”
Critics read (or, rather, misread) Charli’s tee as a serious dig at potential Crash detractors. And that’s, partially, because the clapback T-shirt has a famous precedent: for decades, celebrities have been harnessing the lens of the paparazzi and the power of the slogan tee to deploy pointed messages to the media, the public and beyond.
The queen of the clapback tee is, without a doubt, Britney Spears. The popstar has always been the subject of intense media scrutiny; perhaps most so at the beginning of her career, when tabloids criticised everything from her costumes to her choreography. They openly speculated about her relationships and, even more invasively, about her virginity. These were the days before social media and, in the absence of Twitter or the notorious Notes app, Britney clapped back at critics in the most Y2K way she could. In the wake of her 2002 break-up with Justin Timberlake (and rumours that he was now dating actress Alyssa Milano), the popstar took to the streets of London, Starbucks in hand, wearing her now-iconic Juicy Couture “Dump Him” tee. It was a send-off to her ex and a cheeky assertion, to the always-conjecturing media, that she had, in fact, moved on. Two years later, then stateside, she stepped out wearing another such T-shirt, inscribed “I’m a Virgin (But This Is an Old T-Shirt)” and intended to put an end to the media’s very public discourse about one very private topic.
Beyond Britney, the 00s were a goldmine for cheeky slogan T-shirts. Think Paris Hilton wearing “Stop Being Desperate” or “Don’t Be Jealous.” Nicole Richie in “Dude, Where’s my Couture?” Or Britney, again, in “Move Bitch” and “I Am the American Dream”. Charli XCX is no stranger to the trappings of the Y2K diva. In fact, throughout her career, she’s used them to craft her own pop-brat persona. While singing “I don’t wanna go to school / I just want to break the rules”, on 2014’s bubbly, brash Sucker, Charli was wearing Paris cosplaypink bubble dresses, red carpet chihuahuas and even an exact replica of the heiress’ 21st birthday party outfit — to awards ceremonies. Her “Critics” T-shirt is no different: an avant-pop costume worn to evoke the attitude of her slogan-tee-wearing predecessors.
Praying — the label behind Charli’s T-shirt — is one of many contemporary brands drawing upon the provocative power of the slogan tee. The LA-based label has become a favourite among both popstars and the dirtbag left for its sarcastic, absurd and often cryptic slogans. Booty shorts printed with Corinthians quotes and hoodies signed “You Matter Don’t Give Up” (or was that, “You Don’t Matter Give Up”?) ask us to question the intention behind the slogans we wear. Is a baby tee emblazoned “God’s Favourite” intended to be ironic or sincere? According to Praying, it depends on who’s wearing it and, perhaps more importantly, who’s reading it.  
Petra Collins’ recently launched ready-to-wear label I’m Sorry, which is designed, produced and released in partnership with SSENSE, is a “wearable moodboard” of sloganed gear, with T-shirts reading “I Heart Gossip” and bodycon skirts in “I Wanna Fight,” inspired equally by Y2K and today’s meme-driven internet culture. 
“I grew up in the era of slogan-heavy clothing and always thought it was funny,” Petra says. “I love serious slogan shirts versus ironic ones. I just love the idea of someone putting a shirt on, being like this is what I want to tell the world. Which is what I picture an ‘I’m Sorry’ girl doing. She, like, has major beef and goes to the club wearing the ‘I Wanna Fight’ tube set and does, like, a Vanderpump Rules-style punch.” Petra’s favourite pop culture slogan? “I loved Lindsay Lohan’s ‘Skinny Bitch’ shirt.”
Never the label to shy away from a pop culture homage, Vetements recreated another of music’s most iconic clapback tees for AW19: Kurt Cobain’s “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” shirt, worn by the singer for a Rolling Stone shoot. It was a takedown of mainstream music media from its own front cover.
While many of the most infamous clapback tees take aim at the media, some are meant for its messengers. In the last decade, Zoë Kravitz, Robert Pattinson and Kirsten Stewart have all been papped implicitly telling the paparazzi to “Get Off [Their] Dick[s]” via a vintage 1986 Beastie Boys tee. For Rob and Kirsten, who were famously hounded by the paps at the peak of their Twilight fame and throughout their relationship, the T-shirt’s message reads as all the more pointed. The photos, however, speak for themselves.
Still, some clapback T-shirts take aim at targets more nebulous than the media or the paparazzi. At 2017’s Panorama Music Festival, Frank Ocean took to the main stage wearing a T-shirt screen-printed, “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet?” The now-famous phrase was borrowed from a frustrated tweet written by teenager Brandon Male, and turned into a T-shirt by Kayla Robinson, owner of social justice clothing label Green Box Shop. When asked about the T-shirt’s viral message, Brandon said, “I don’t remember exactly why I tweeted it, but it was mainly out of sadness and agitation — bigotry spreads like wildfire and that’s the last thing we need, especially in our political climate”. Brandon’s original tweet reverberated across Twitter, amassing over 20,000 likes; with Frank’s help, it resounded across the entire internet. On stage, the T-shirt held a metaphorical mic to the exasperated voices of the marginalised, with the aim to silence not critics, but bigots, far and wide.
As evidenced by Charli’s viral “Critics” moment, the clapback tee retains the same power it did in Y2K. Even in our hyper-connected, social media-driven world, a strategically deployed slogan T-shirt can still send a message, loud and clear.
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