Streetwear has a rebellious attitude. I know that. You know that. So it's no surprise we see things like HUF's "Fuck It" bucket hats, Supreme's "Fuck the Police" and "Fuck Bones" T-Shirts, or naked women on sweatshirts proliferating. At this point, pieces like these are everyday occurrences in the realm of streetwear.
Even women's streetwear brands are using more provocative and explicit images. Earlier this week, New York Magazine ran an article titled, "Vagina Pride: On Streetwear, Feminism Gets Graphic.” It pointed out the popularity of pieces like the House of LaDosh's "Cunts" and "Cunts Life" T-shirts, and KTHANKSBYE "Cuntier" hats—a play on Cartier, obviously.
These graphics have proven lucrative—especially with the recent trend of designer parody tees. And while the women's stuff is definitely a celebration of girl power and the female body, you have to wonder: Are these shocking graphics we see in streetwear used solely for shock value, without any real impact in mind? Are they just shocking for shock's sake?
There was a time when clothing used shocking imagery and art to try and communicate progressive and even revolutionary ideas. It wasn't only about shock; The provocation had an intention.
In the 1970s, Vivienne Westwood and then-partner Malcolm McLaren created clothes that straight up jarred people into thinking differently about life in Great Britain. Their now-iconic “Destroy” T-shirt featured a swastika, a symbol that was used not out of hatred, but instead to rebel against the generation that fought in WWII and were maintaining an unfair status quo in the '70s.
Another infamous tee of theirs depicted Queen Elizabeth with a safety pin through her lip. Shocking imagery like this had never been seen before, and was an immediate way for the youth to express their discontent with the unchallenged government, and an artistic means to address it.
Westwood and McLarens' intent was to shock a staid British youth society out of a post-WWII complacency, and to Westwood believed her job was to "confront the establishment to try and find out where the freedom lies and what you can do..."
Soon, punks began to rock Tartan—a pattern that was, until then, associated with British aristocracy and an idea of exclusivity—to raise a middle finger to the aristocratic belief that the upper crust was too exclusive to ever accept the plebian masses. At this point, young people used fashion as a means of expression to create their own identity free from prior notions of right and wrong.
The only recent item of note that could perhaps compare to Westwood's work, in that it provoked people into thinking seriously about an issue, is the "Period" T-Shirt by American Apparel and 20-year-old artist Petra Collins. The tees feature Collins' drawing of a woman masturbating with her menstruating vagina, and is intended to make people face what is a natural process.
"I decided to put a super-taboo topic right on a t-shirt to make it viewable for everyone,” Collins said. “I’m really interested in what is hidden from our culture. We are always repressing or hiding what is natural to a post-pubescent body. We’re taught to hate our menstrual cycle and even to hide masturbation.”
This got people talking about a very little-talked about notion: that our society is inexplicably repulsed by women's interactions with their own bodies. On the other hand, the only middle finger "Cuntier" is giving is the one pointed at a rude Cartier employee that inspired the pun.
Today, we take for granted vulgarity and sexually explicit images. And we have definitely become desensitized to aggressive words like "Fuck" and "Cunt." Even if meant to inflict a state of shock, these no longer evoke the same reaction they did, say, when French Connection introduced its "FCUK" logo in the 1990s.
Times have obviously changed, and perhaps Westwood and the Sex Pistols did have more to comment on then—strikes, a rigid class sytem, and unemployment in London in the '70s. This isn't meant to be a Puritanical scree against the fucking awesome times we live in. But would it hurt streetwear brands to use provocative images more sparingly, and thus, wisely?
Let’s not forget, there are kids who treat their favorite streetwear brands like cults. They cop the clothing not just for how it looks, but for what the brand represents and stands for. Supreme, HUF, and other labels are smart enough to honor those who were creating in a time when aesthetic had substance. So, although not everyone needs an agenda, having some substance behind just saying "Fuck" can allow streetwear to have a deeper impact on society and culture.
Not too long ago, labels like PNB Nation were using imagery that invoked deeper thought with powerful imagery. The resulting pieces sparked questions and conversations on politics, police brutality, and race relations. Now, your "Fuck" tee will piss off your mom more than the establishment. So we have to ask: If a T-shirt curses, and no one actually cares, will it make a sound?