As John Dove points out, it took Malcolm McLaren’s unique combination of commercial nous and artistic insurrection to conduct a Dr Frankenstein and bring the tits tee back from the novelty graveyard for resurrection as a vital fashion statement.
//Steve Jones wears his tits with pride, 1976. Pic: Joe Stevens//
In the spring of 1975 McLaren found himself far away from home. The previous year he had overseen the transformation of 430 Kings Road into Sex, aided by his design partner Vivienne Westwood with creative input from friends including Bernie Rhodes and Gerry Goldstein and the practical help of Vick Mead, a master carpenter he had chanced upon in his south London neighbourhood of Clapham.
//430 King’s Road, London SW3, 1975. Pic: Peter Schlesinger//
When the shop was open again McLaren had upped sticks across the Atlantic to work with the New York Dolls, but, as documented extensively elsewhere, their combined and gargantuan drink and drug habits mitigated against any hope of commercial resuscitation.
A final series of dates in the south had resulted in the collapse of the group. “The Dolls had broken up in Florida in a drunken, drug-induced frenzy, and left me with just two assets: a Les Paul guitar and a convertible car,” says McLaren.
“From the swamps of a trailer park I sped with the guitarist Sylvain Sylvain to the Big Easy.
//McLaren wades in at the Nashville Rooms, April, 1976. Pic: Joe Stevens//
“There, on Bourbon Street, I found the sexiest t-shirt of all, one with a blue print of a pair of perfect-sized tits so as to transform the wearer, man or woman. This t-shirt was purchased in what you would consider today some kind of little tourist boutique.”
//Anarchy In The Eighties, The Face, February 1986. Photograph: Nick Knight//
“I remember the shop clearly; it was opposite a house in which, on the second-floor window, there was an open curtain. Every 10 seconds a girl on a swing traversed the street in mid-air, her legs wide to an open crotch, and then back through the window and the curtain closed; it was a knocking shop and she was advertising the wares.”
Suitably impressed, McLaren included the tee in the haul he took back to London a couple of weeks later.
//Sex in Forum, June, 1976. Photographs: David Parkinson//
Reprinted, mainly in blue on white, and worn by rebellious teenagers of both sexes, it was to become a staple during the Sex Pistols’ rise after the line-up coalesced in August that year.
Guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook were early adopters; Jones can be seen wearing it in the 1976 Forum magazine photoshoot on Sex and in photographs from many of the Pistols live performances.
Jones also makes sure that it is on full view during the epochal encounter with Bill Grundy on Thames TV’s magazine show Today in December 1976.
Thereafter it was worn by such SEX shoppers as Siouxsie Sue and was reproduced throughout the 80s by the likes of BOY and Kensington Market‘s Pure Sex, who provided the design for a Nick Knight-shot celebration of the 10th anniversary of punk in The Face in February 1986.
Siouxsie Sue in her tits tee, 1977/ 666 version 2009//
It is still available, officially in a number of colourways from Westwood, or unofficially via such repro companies as 666.
//Westwood MAN and Anglomania tees//
Four decades after this strange design was innocently produced for an art school project, the tits tee is more popular than ever, though there is something beautiful about the fact that it doesn’t look likely we’ll ever know whose breasts they were originally.
“The model lived downstairs from us in Providence,” says Laura Gottwald. “I forgot her name.”