Fashion of the 2000s: A brief history of Britney Spears’ clapback t-shirt at Paris Hilton
During the week of her latest album’s release, avant-popstar Charli XCX was lambasted by critics. But not for what you might expect. crash – the album in question – received favorable reviews. What didn’t, however, and what has caused an outcry from critics of everything from movies to politics, is a T-shirt. Leaving London’s Sexy Fish restaurant on the eve of crash, Charli wore a baby pink t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “They don’t build statues of critics”. One commenter reviewed the tee: “pathetic lmao.”
Critics read (or rather misinterpreted) Charli’s tee as a serious dig at the potential crash critics. And that’s, in part, because the clapback t-shirt has a famous precedent: For decades, celebrities have harnessed the paparazzi lens and the power of the slogan t-shirt to deploy pointed messages to the media, the public and beyond.
The queen of the clapback tee is undoubtedly Britney Spears. The popstar has always been under intense media scrutiny; perhaps more early in her career, when the tabloids slammed everything from her costumes to her choreography. They openly speculated about her relationships and, even more invasively, her virginity. This was before social media and, in the absence of Twitter or the famous Notes app, Britney clapped back at critics in the most grounded way possible. Following his 2002 split from Justin Timberlake (and rumors that he was now dating actress Alyssa Milano), the popstar took to the streets of London, Starbucks in hand, wearing his now-iconic t-shirt Juicy Couture “Dump Him”. It was a send off to her ex and a cheeky assertion, to the ever-guessing media, that she had, in fact, moved on. Two years later, while in the United States, she stepped out wearing another such t-shirt, which read “I’m a virgin (but it’s an old t-shirt)” and meant to end to the very public discourse of the media on a very private subject.
Beyond Britney, the 2000s were a gold mine for cheeky slogan t-shirts. Think Paris Hilton wearing “Stop Being Desperate” or “Don’t Be Jealous”. Nicole Richie in “Man, Where’s My Sewing?” Or Britney, again, in “Move the female dog” and “I am the american dream”. Charli XCX is no stranger to Y2K diva trappings. In fact, throughout her career, she’s used them to create her own pop-kid persona. While singing “I don’t wanna go to school / I just wanna break the rules,” on the bubbly and brash 2014 Suction cup, Charli wore Parisian cosplay — pink bubble dresses, red carpet Chihuahuas and even an exact replica of the heiress’ 21st birthday party outfit — to awards shows. His “Critics” t-shirt is no different: an avant-pop costume worn to evoke the attitude of his slogan-wearing predecessors.
Praying, the brand behind Charli’s t-shirt, is one of many contemporary brands that draw on the provocative power of the slogan t-shirt. The Los Angeles-based label has become a favorite among popstars and the dirty bag left for its sarcastic, absurd and often cryptic catchphrases. Booty shorts printed with Corinthians quotes and hoodies signed “You Matter Don’t Give Up” (or was it “You Don’t Matter Give Up”?) ask us to question the intention behind the slogans that we carry. Is a baby t-shirt that says “God’s Favorite” meant to be ironic or sincere? According to Praying, it depends on who wears it and, perhaps more importantly, who reads it.
Petra Collins’ recently launched ready-to-wear brand I’m Sorry is a “wearable moodboard” of slogan gear, with “I Heart Gossip” t-shirts and bodycon skirts in “I Wanna Fight”, inspired by both Y2K and today’s meme-driven internet culture.
“I grew up in the era of slogan clothing and always thought it was funny,” says Petra. “I like serious slogan shirts over ironic shirts. I love the idea of someone putting on a shirt, either like this is what I want to say to the world. That’s what I imagine an “I’m sorry” girl doing. She, like, has a big beef and goes to the club with the ‘I Wanna Fight’ hit set and does, like, a Vanderpump Rules-style punch. Petra’s favorite pop culture catchphrase? “I loved Lindsay Lohan’s ‘Skinny Bitch’ shirt.”
Never the label to shy away from a pop culture homage, Vetements has recreated another of music’s most iconic clapback t-shirts for Fall Winter 2019: Kurt Cobain’s “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” shirt, worn by the singer during a rolling stone shoot. It was a mainstream music media takedown of its own coverage.
While many of the most infamous clapback tees are aimed at the media, some are aimed at its messengers. Over the past decade, Zoë Kravitz, Robert Pattinson and Kirsten Stewart have all been tattooed implicitly telling the paparazzi to “Come down [Their] Tail[s]” via a vintage Beastie Boys t-shirt from 1986. For Rob and Kirsten, who were stalked by the paps at the top of their dusk 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 aim for more nebulous targets than the media or the paparazzi. At the 2017 Panorama Music Festival, Frank Ocean took to the main stage wearing a screen-printed t-shirt, “Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just shut up?” The now famous phrase was borrowed from a frustrated tweet written by teenager Brandon Male, and made into a T-shirt by Kayla Robinson, owner of social justice apparel brand Green Box Shop. Asked about the T-shirt’s viral message, Brandon said: “I can’t remember exactly why I tweeted it, but it was mostly out of sadness and restlessness – bigotry is spreading like wildfire and it’s is the last thing we need, especially in our political climate.” Brandon’s original tweet reverberated on Twitter, amassing over 20,000 likes; with Frank’s help, it sounded all over the internet. Onstage, the T-shirt held a metaphorical microphone to the exasperated voices of the marginalized, aiming to silence not the critics, but the fanatics, from afar.
As evidenced by Charli’s viral “Critics” moment, the clapback tee retains the same power as in Y2K. Even in our hyper-connected, social media-driven world, a strategically deployed slogan t-shirt can still send a loud and clear message.
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