x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

When T-shirts cross the line

T-shirts have long been signboards for fashion, politics, lifestyles and personal statements. The messages are not always amenable to the national culture, however.

The line between a witty slogan in western markets and an offensive statement for the Arab market can be fine.
The line between a witty slogan in western markets and an offensive statement for the Arab market can be fine.

It's not a new topic, but T-shirt imagery is suddenly what everyone at the coalface of fashion in Dubai is talking about. Last week there was trouble at t'mill when Harvey Nichols put a tee on the shelves that featured an image that was offensive to many: a bulldog, in rhinestones, superimposed on to a UAE flag. The shop said it was the result of a misunderstanding with the Italian manufacturer. The T-shirts were swiftly removed, but the controversy rumbled on, and no one could decide whether it was a deliberate slight or a simple oversight by slightly dim designers for whom the addition of a cute dog made of crystals could not fail to improve a garment.

What this draws attention to is the fact that over the past 20 years or so, the T-shirt has gone from political statement (think Katharine Hamnett's Choose Life ones in the Eighties) to lewd statement (those tight little unmentionable ones in the Nineties) to fashion statement (the Ramones T-shirts worn to festivals by teenagers who didn't know who the Ramones were), and back to political again (Make Poverty History, Lives Not Knives and other charidee slogans). They have become such an everyday part of the visual landscape of malls and high streets that most people have become inured to any impact the tee may once have had. But what putting words on T-shirts did in the long term was to make this simple garment the repository for all sorts of messages, visual and verbal, intentional and otherwise. You wear your heart on your torso, not on your sleeve.

And a picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. That's why, when the punks of late Seventies Britain wanted to express their anti-establishment rebellion through their clothing, they emblazoned T-shirts with images of Queen Elizabeth with the Union Jack, safety pins and graffiti. Reverent it wasn't, but iconoclastic, certainly, it was. The thing is, the punks knew exactly what they were doing. Controversy was their raison d'être. They wanted to offend. Whatever you think of that, at least there was some deliberation involved. Now, though, graphic designers and artists working on T-shirts (and jewellery and bags and all the other detritus of modern fashion), with their merely pretty combinations of letters or pictures, create images that are wide open to misinterpretation. When Malia Obama wore a CND T-shirt in Italy recently, it seemed that, even if she was too young to fully understand the implications, her family clearly did: there was no accident there. But when the British TV chef Jamie Oliver - known for his cheeky grin and his right-on, ethical approach to food - wore a Tamil Tigers T-shirt, he had no idea what he was saying with it. He just liked it, and had to apologise when he discovered the guerilla group's violent activities.

It's an ongoing difficulty for many boutique buyers in the UAE. Zayan Ghandour, the co-owner, head buyer and creative director at S*uce, the chain of UAE boutiques that is packed with cute logo-scattered pieces, from bags to bangles, acknowledges that this can be a problem - especially given the recent trend for Arab designers to rethink icons of their own culture. "There are several symbols - such as the blue eye and the traditional ghutra fabric - that have been repeatedly used by local and regional designers simply because the Arab customer loves them and demands such graphics and design components be added on to garments or accessories, regardless of the trend," she says. "We work very closely with designers to maximize the commercial aspect of their designs and at the same time make sure that these symbols are used tastefully."

Ultimately, most local designers will have an idea of what is acceptable in the region. The difficulty is with fashion from Western designers. "It's sometimes a fine line between what is regarded as an avant-garde witty slogan or fashion item in the western markets but is an outright offensive statement if purchased for the Arab market," says Ghandour. "The store's buyer has to be careful when buying into such novelty items... We often customise designs so they don't have to compromise not being avant-garde and at the same time make sure it is well-suited for our clients. We avoid buying clothes and accessories with images of animals printed on them. Even though such prints would be very popular in Western markets, there isn't a big demand for them in our market."

The final word should, perhaps, be left to Dubai's Code of Conduct, the breaching of which is what caused this problem in the first place: "Clothing shall not indecently expose parts of the body, be transparent, or display obscene or offensive pictures and slogans." While some slogan tee wearers seem oblivious to the meaning of their sartorial choices, that phrasing seems pretty clear to us.