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the garment movement

Okay, you’re sunburned from Pride and too many trips to Hanlan’s Point. So get out of the heat and into the A/C to see To See & Be Seen: T-shirts from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archive at the Textile Museum of Canada. It’s an eye-opening exhibit that uses pop culture as fashion statement to document our 40-year fight for equal rights.

At first, the exhibit looks more like a window display at a Queen West vintage boutique. But on closer examination, you realize that this room full of short-sleeved shirts is saying something very important. But this is one time you can’t say been there, done that, bought the T-shirt since they’re not for sale. 

First-time curator and professor at Ryerson’s School of Fashion Joseph Medaglia and his friends at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives had the idea to showcase these T’s, giving them the special significance and attention they deserve. Starting with more than 700 different ones that were in storage at the archives, Medaglia and his team sifted through piles and piles to find 100 with the strongest messages. “My main intent was to let the T-shirts speak for themselves and let them tell their own stories,” says Medaglia. And these garments really do tell a story.

Today, you can literally be an opinionated, shirtless jogger, garner viral fame and be heard across the country. But decades ago when the gay rights movement began in North America, activists didn’t have the internet and smartphones to get their messages out to the masses. So they decided to be seen instead. And with a silk screen, some paint and a lot of courage they took to the streets.

“Back in the ‘90s with ACT UP and Queer Nation, a lot of these T-shirts were used during protests,” says Medaglia. “Wearing a T-shirt is very different than holding a sign. If you’re holding a sign and somebody comes to attack you, you can throw the sign away. You can’t really throw your T-shirt away [that easily]. So you’re physically at risk.”

Helping to bring these shirts to life, the exhibit’s walls are lined with black and white photographs of the first Toronto Pride marches of the early 1970s, long before an official Pride parade was even conceived. The pictures give you a sense of what these shirts were really used for and the important history that’s attached to them. All of which happens to be Medaglia’s main goal with the exhibit:  “I didn’t avoid T-shirts that were marked or stained or had holes in them, so we could show that people actually wore these shirts and that people lived through [these protests] and experienced those struggles to get to where we are now. Considering where LGBT rights are today, a lot of our histories are forgotten, or haven’t been relayed to the public.”

While some of the T-shirts have strong political and social messages, others highlight the work of famous visual artists like the late Keith Haring, and some just celebrate the LGBTQ community with a wink.

To See & Be Seen: T-shirts from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. To Sep 1. $15 (PWYC Wednesdays between 5-8pm). The Textile Museum of Canada. 55 Centre Ave. textilemuseum.ca.