In 2017, Frank Ocean wore a shirt to the Panorama Music Festival in 2017 stating, “Why Be Racist, Sexist, Homophobic or Transphobic, When You Could Just Be Quiet.” This shirt, designed by then-18-year-old Kayla Robinson, garnered a lot of support, but Ocean wasn’t the first person to make a political statement with his clothing.
In 1972, Vivien Westwood made a collection of shirts that made political statements relevant to the time period, taking a new perspective on the slogan tees made popular in the 1960s. Another notable occurrence of a slogan tee was in 1984 when Katherine Hamnett, a designer and activist, wore a shirt stating “58% Don’t Want Pershing” to protest Pershing missiles in England, demonstrating that the majority of the public was against it. Using clothing to make a political or social statement wasn’t a new concept of the time either, as it was used in the suffragist movement in the 1920s. Statement clothing was also used in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the anti-war movements in the 1970s.
Fast forward to the 1990s when popular “The Cosby Show” spin-off “A Different World” showed characters wearing African-American College Alliance hoodies that featured Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In the past couple of years, fashion trends from the 1990s have had a resurgence in popularity, and the prominence of statement clothing could be somewhat of a side-effect of this. Maven Brand founder Keinon Johnson remembers those times and says its what inspired him to create the popular “NEVER SOLD DOPE” T-shirt line.
“When I was coming up as a teenager, I remember statement clothing being big back in the 90s,” he told VOX ATL. ”I just thought they were dope because they gave you a sense of pride.”
Johnson says the inspiration for the “NEVER SOLD DOPE” tee was to “convey some things that were positive about the [African-American] culture.” Johnson wanted to debunk the negative idea that most people in the African-American culture sell drugs. Making the statement “Never Sold Dope” helps to convey this message. Johnson, who grew up in Harlem, New York, said, “I’m from the hood and the majority of the kids that I knew weren’t doing that.” He believes “Never Sold Dope” will promote a conversation and “open up the door to show people that it is more than what they’re seeing in the general public and on TV.”
Johnson isn’t the only one trying to create change through clothing as a brand owner.
Latif Wisdom started his clothing brand Wisdom when he was 16 years old at Redan High School and has since been creating pieces that bring awareness. Wisdom currently has an “END RAPE CULTURE” campaign to promote awareness on the topic.
When figuring out how to depict the message, he did have concerns.
“How will my customers translate [the word] ‘rape’ on a shirt?” he said. “Any variation of how that word is presented, how would that resonate with them?” Ultimately the brand put the phrase in all caps and in varying fonts to make the stance on the issue clear. Through this clothing movement, Wisdom became a confidant to victims of rape and rape culture. “At my photo shoots, models would sit by me and tell me their story,” he said. “What I’m doing, it allowed her to feel comfortable showing her scars.”
Wisdom was also inspired by his own sister who shared her story which made him want to help end and understand rape culture even more. “Rape is a crime, not sex, he says. “It’s never a gender thing, because young boys get raped, too.”
Neither Wisdom or Johnson are worried if they also turn potential customers away with their messages. They’re more concerned with touching those who need to see these issues being discussed.
“I like what I’m doing, regardless whether you like it or not,” said Wisdom. “Somebody’s being affected by this and it’s changing their lives.”
Even though many celebrities have been spotted in the “NEVER SOLD DOPE” shirts, Johnson says he hopes to see more young kids wearing them, that way “they’re being influenced by their peers opposed to someone that’s already made it.”
Wearing pieces such as “NEVER SOLD DOPE” and “END RAPE CULTURE” supports those who could not voice these issues themselves. Now we are able to wear our beliefs. Hopefully, more brands will find their genuine purpose to spread the word about issues that count. There is always someone who feels alone and who knows how wearing a shirt that makes a statement can mean something more for them and give them a semblance of hope that change can occur.
Aryanna, 17, Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology.