Open Access

The Legacy of Katharine Hamnett’s T-shirts. Fashion as Activism


For a long time, fashion was only a novelty, an aesthetic pleasure, a means of individual self-expression, a possession (Veblen 1899), and a means of separation (Simmel 1904). In the last more than thirty years, following a change of attitude, fashion has also become interpretable as a medium of social activism. It no longer seeks to shape only wearable products and the style of their wearers but also the world (Fuad-Luke 2009). This essay interprets the career of British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett and her 1984 media scandal as the starting point for a shift in attitude, when fashion and social engagement became organically linked and dress became a means of bringing social and ecological issues into focus, beyond itself. Drawing on case studies, the essay explores the changing narrative around clothes, raising current issues such as the importance of using organic cotton as a raw material, the role of the active citizen, the limits of growth, or the meanings constructed by marketing. Although Hamnett’s work has received undeservedly little discussion, she has an undeniably important role to play in changing this narrative. Today, thanks to her activist design, social responsibility has become a fundamental principle in branding. We can never talk about fashion in the same way as before Hamnett.