LONG before Rhodes University student Justin Nurse pulled the middle finger to South African Breweries and Standard Bank with his cheeky Laugh It Off motif T-shirts, South Africans have been wearing their hearts on their boeps – but election day last week showed that those hearts are still sorely divided.
Now, more than ever, the T-shirt is your personal bumper sticker. Generally, the intention is ironic. But the comments posted to Facebook over a Despatch voter’s T-shirt last week showed a distinct lack of humour.
Peter Davey wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the old South African flag to the polls on May 7. After The Herald reporter Rochelle de Kock’s photograph of him was posted on our Facebook page, he was subject to both vitriolic verbal abuse and praise.
The T-shirt has come a long way since it was plain white underwear and it was only around World War 2 that American soldiers introduced the notion of the T-shirt as casual outerwear. Add in James Dean and Marlon Brando sporting crisp white Tees and today the T-shirt is the most common garment in wardrobes worldwide.
Whether you choose a garment bearing Madiba’s face, a tongue-in-cheek slogan, a well-known logo or support your sports team, your T-shirt choice is your personal and portable declaration – saying what you want to say about yourself without you having to open your mouth.
The retail store Big Blue for example has around 18000 T-shirts on their shelves at any one time, with around 50 top sellers, another 200 repeat designs and a further 200 in trial phase. Mr Price and other clothing chain stores likewise have colourful logo options by the dozen.
The challenge in a world dominated by click-and-share instantaneousness, says Big Blue co-owner James Robertson, is staying relevant.
“The real zeitgeist is what people are feeling simultaneously and spontaneously, rather than what is being fed to them,” he says. “Our customers are intelligent, they all have Pinterest and well-meaning friends, so they decide the most flattering colour, style, fabric or garment. We try to make sure it is available to them.
“Also, I think that South Africans are not afraid of colour, so we can look at brighter colours than whatever a forecaster in dreary Europe is telling us to wear”.
Robertson and team mine feedback from customers and hone information from what’s happening in the fashion world: “at the moment the colour that we’re being told is ‘now’ is neon coral but it’s not a flattering colour for all skin tones, and it’s ugly. So it’s not going to happen,” he says.
Another South African manufacturer, Holmes Bros, says its designs are influenced by international trends with “our own South African twist and, after five years, we’re still trawling the ’80s for inspiration”.
“Big Blue T-shirts are very much about seeing the humour in the South African context, often with a dose of reference to our Afrikaans and African heritages,” said co-owner Laurie Holmes.
The popular sellers at Big Blue are:
- Pride in being African – “the continent of Africa is a good seller, and even though it has now been done by so many other retailers, people still come to us for it. It’s a good strong graphic,” says Robertson.
- Nelson Mandela’s face – “although copyright issues are a minefield, so we’re steering clear of that nowadays,” notes Robertson.
- T-shirts with a “feel-good factor”, an amusing graphic or slogan that makes people feel good about themselves.
Generally South Africans like to portray an air of positivity through the shirts they wear – rather than being outwardly provocative and political, saying something in a subtle way seems to be the South African way.
With the exception, of course, of our gentleman in Despatch. – Gillian McAinsh