Since December 3, 2021 the Barnard Archive Reading Room has been decorated with T-shirts lining the walls and hanging alongside each other in racks. The T-shirts are curiously older than most of the students walking around on campus today and hung collectively here they tell a unique story of their owners, the collection they currently reside in, and feminist political activism as a whole.
To dive into what zines have to do with all of this, I sat down with one of the curators Vita Kurland (they/them) and Zine Tech Claudia Acosta (they/she) to discuss the collection alongside its updated vitrine, now including zine ephemera from the zine library's own special collections.
Vita is a graduate fellow working in Barnard's Archive and Special Collections. According to them, the exhibit was pure happenstance— one day they found a box of T-shirts in the archives close to their desk, and curiosity ensued. As a dual degree student of library sciences and costume history researching T-shirts, the exhibit was a perfect opportunity to explore the questions at the core of their studies, interrogating what it means to use T-shirts as feminist texts.
Thus Wearable Documents came into being: a curated selection of T-Shirts taken from the over 50 the library currently has, dating from the 1970s up to the early 2000s. The shirts are drawn from a handful of collections including zinesters Keight Bergmann, Lauren Jade Martin, Sara Jaffe, activist and photographer Freda Leinwand, alum and writer Rona Wilk, and the Barnard Center for Research on Women.
The very presence of these shirts is pretty uncommon for an archival collection. Most of Barnard's archive is composed of written documentation but Vita says, "the shirts are also a form of written documentation in the grand scheme of print culture." This very idea is a direct link between the shirts and zines. It's all part of a counterculture emphasis on DIY publications, a self-driven urgency to share important messages— both personal and political.
The updated vitrine elaborates on this connection, displaying spreads of zines drawing on the rich history connecting clothing and feminist counterculture. A majority of the zinester's shirts come directly from the Riot Grrrl movement starting in the early 90s. Zine tech Claudia tells us, "Riot Grrrl was a DIY feminist punk movement centering on young girls and teenagers. It was popularized by these all-girl bands like Bikini Kill or Heavens to Betsy."
Originating in Washington state, the music of Riot Grrrl was a subversion of the male-dominated punk scene. It was overtly political, tackling subjects like misogyny, rape culture, and queer experiences. The name itself Riot Grrrl is a subversion— taking the often condescending term "girl" and inserting a threatening growl. As for the zines, Claudia says "It was, for the most part, an American phenomenon. A lot of it was anti-Bush administration-type political writing, feminist discourse, and also independent literature and art. The zines were like networks for affinity and intimacy with other girls."
Drawing on its punk music and DIY origins, the aesthetic of Riot Grrrl was an amalgamation of subverted feminine imagery in an aggressive self-ironizing way. "A lot of fun cutesy Hello Kitty type imagery turned on its head— like with the anarchist symbol. Or the use of these 50s pinup housewife clip arts— but she's like sticking out her middle finger or saying fuck!"
Naturally, the shirts stemmed from the DIY spirit so embedded in zines, and they signified an identification with this growing feminist movement. Claudia explains "Zinesters acquired and distributed shirts the same way they distributed their zines— through these snail mail order networks. Zine distributors, known as "distros", would sell zines for the creators by reviewing and compiling multiple zines into catalogs that people could bulk order from. The same is true for the shirts. Or, you could be tabling at a zine fair and have these items like shirts and buttons alongside your zine."
In contrast to merchandising today, they're usually handmade and upcycled. As Claudia explains, "For the most part, it was thrifting second-hand clothing or old T-shirts and then screen printing, drawing, sewing patches onto them, then selling them. There’s a uniqueness there that corresponds with the handmade quality of zines - little stains, blotches of ink that make your shirt special, that remind you that a friend made it for you."
An example of this emphasis on upcycling is a gray-speckled Gap brand "Don't Feed the Republicans" Tee from Keight Bergmann's collection. Vita notes, "Gap wasn't making 'don't feed the republicans' shirts. You're using what you have or you've thrifted something that you can recycle and upcycle and transform, there's something transformative." And as Claudia adds, subversion was a part of the upcycling too— "Republicans were the ones wearing Gap."
An awareness of sizing inequality— which continues to be an issue in the clothing industry today— seems to factor largely into these unique clothing items. In the Alien Girl mail order catalog displayed in the vitrine, the author writes "Girls come in sizes larger than kids small" and "It's really disgusting going to Urban Outfitters and paying $25 for a new shirt that is too small in a color and style you might not like."
Claudia comments on the issue of sizeism in zines by adding, "the Alien Girl author Marcy Tignor, in another zine she made called Nerd Girl that we have at Barnard, she discusses sizeism and patriarchal expectations for women to fit a certain predetermined size and look. She talks a bit about how she has come to accept her body for how it is. It's interesting that this person was thinking a lot about sizeism as it related to themselves and also how that connected to the sizing they made available in the shirts they made for other people."
It's particularly interesting to view these shirts in conversation with the present, as political T-shirts are no longer limited to DIY countercultures like Riot Grrrl. In the last few years T-shirts and clothing have resurged as vehicles for activism but now have been co-opted by larger fashion brands. Dior's $710 "the future is female" shirt quoting Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made headlines as celebrities were spotted in it and fast fashion brands have sold an array of political t-shirts. Even the phrase "girl power", which one could find in any clothing store now, has been decontextualized from its DIY political activist origins. The phrase originated in a Riot Grrrl zine that we have at the Barnard Zine Library, Bikini Kill #2: Girl Power. These evolutions come with endless contradictions of course, but the exhibit itself provides a nuanced look at how we got here.
For some context, Vita shares an abbreviated history of the T-shirt: "It was a formal kind of male part of a military uniform as an undergarment and then in 1939 the first promotional T-shirt was made for The Wizard of Oz. So the graphic tee has always been for advertisement in that way, or for self-expression. It was primarily in the 60s that political T-shirts really flourished so they're also political in nature. They are still to give a message, even if you have a shirt that says Dior you're proclaiming that as a status symbol. It provides the same function. But it is really different. What's so exciting about these shirts is that like zines and other alternative print mediums, they're relatively affordable and democratic in a way."
Looking at some of the iconographies on the shirts, the relationship between them and "capital-F-Fashion" becomes even more complicated, revealing a surprising truth about all forms of fashion. Action Girl's "Anarchist Hello Kitty" is a perfect example, showcasing how these alternative market T-shirts incorporated images (often copyrighted) from the mainstream market. "Like zines— It's a collage sample of so many things. With bootlegging you can get away with it if you're doing a small run of shirts for a school (like Barnard's All Nighter Snoopy shirt) or for your zine. It's gonna go under the radar".
Claudia adds, "It goes in the other direction too— where companies like H&M or Shein steal designs from artists and it equally goes unaccounted for." And this connects to the wider umbrella of all fashion, as Vita clearly states: "That's so much a part of fashion and fashion history— stealing— it's so explicit in fashion."
But are these T-shirts fashion? Well, what is most interesting is that they seem to exist in a state of endless contradictions. They're clothing but also archival documents. They're wearable but no one wears them anymore. They're political but the movements they represented have passed. They're both the originator of the trendy mainstream "political tee" and the link between countercultural community networks. Both the definition and antithesis of "capital-F-Fashion".
Looking at the shirts hanging here now, Vita says that in a sense, these shirts are "dead". Just as they once signified the wearer's sense of belonging to a moment in time, hanging here now they tell a different story. On the subject of the shirts having been donated, Claudia considers that "it says something important about the donors' lives, their activism, their time at Barnard, but also that they don't wear it anymore. It's not a part of their wardrobe anymore. So what does that mean about what they think about these shirts?"
And as with all archival exhibits, there are gaps, Vita notes. "It relates to Barnard as an institution as well. People who are affluent enough or have the privilege to donate it to the institution— to even know that that's something you could do. In archival practices, we consider the gaps in certain collections.'
Even at its time, Riot Grrrl was heavily criticized for its emphasis on white middle-class women, with the concerns of queer people and women of color often omitted from the discourse. Claudia points out that "you'd be hard-pressed to find lower-income POC punks who have risen to this level of institutional recognition or "zine canon" in the ways a lot of other white middle-upper class riot grrrls did. Even those images of femininity and girlhood like Hello Kitty are playing on a kind of innocence not afforded to women of color." And we can learn from these nuances too, as Vita tells us, "Of course, these movements were super radical, but we have to consider what is missing from this as well? It's interesting."
If you'd like to continue pondering these questions and see the T-shirts yourself, the Wearable Documents exhibit will be up until March 11, 2022, in the Barnard Archives and Special Collections Hope L. and John L. Reading Room on the fourth floor of the Milstein Center. To visit, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time.
And if you love T-shirts as much as we do, please join us at the Design Center on March 11, 2022, from 2:00 pm-4:00 pm for a Wearable Documents T-Shirt Making Workshop. Learn more and RSVP here.
The author of this article, Nayla Delgado Oliva (she/her), is a sophomore student at Barnard College majoring in English and a student associate at the Barnard Zine Library.