Wearable Documents: Tees from the Barnard Archives
Curated by Vita Kurland and Zara Simba (BC '24)
Barnard Archives and Special Collections Hope L. and John L. Furth Archives Reading Room
423 Milstein Center, 3009 Broadway
December 3, 2021 - March 11, 2022
Exhibition Hours: Fridays, 11am-5pm and by appointment (visitors not affiliated with Barnard or Columbia must make appointments; email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Wearable Documents explores graphic T-shirts found in the Barnard Archives, analyzing the documentary significance of T-shirts as feminist texts. Drawing from the collections of zinesters Keight Bergmann, Lauren Jade Martin, and Sara Jaffe, activist and photographer Freda Leinwand, alum and writer Rona Wilk, and the Barnard Center for Research on Women, these T-shirts serve as mnemonic devices reflective of generations of feminist histories.
The Barnard Archives hold over fifty graphic T-shirts from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Reflective not only of the college’s history but also the archives’ collecting style, Wearable Documents interrogates practices of archival appraisal: Why did these shirts end up in an institution that does not explicitly collect textiles? Why are they important to preserve and study?
A staple of the contemporary wardrobe, T-shirts have become a vehicle for self-expression—a tool to communicate a diversity of messages, advertisements, and political slogans since the later half of the twentieth century. As wearables, these objects openly engage the public: they are meant to be read and seen. The iconographic and textually rich surfaces of these material objects serve as historical and commemorative records, emotional souvenirs, and as agents in interpersonal communication.
Many of the T-shirts in Freda Leinwand’s collection reference first-wave feminist suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Alice Duer Miller (1874–1942). One shirt reads: “Mother, what is a Feminist?...,” quoting Miller’s 1915 collection of satirical poems Are Women People? A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times.
Conveyed through a variety of colors, images, fonts, and cuts, the messages displayed on the shirts are meditations on identity, women’s rights, labor politics, pop culture, and nostalgia. The company Sanrio’s most iconic fictional character, Hello Kitty, is depicted on a T-shirt from the zinester ephemera collection of Lauren Jade Martin. Outlined in red, Hello Kitty sports a shirt with the words “Riot Grrrl'' and holds a teddy bear bearing an anarchist “circle-A” symbol.
A series of photographs of women wearing T-shirts from the collection along with corresponding zines are displayed to build context around how these objects were worn and distributed.
Through the combination of text and image, the shirts on display are maintained for their narrative value, as records of personal and political style and graphic design trends. Wearable Documents focuses on these T-shirts to help us understand them as sites of intergenerational feminist thought worthy of archival stewardship.