What Your T-Shirt Says About You

How merch became a staple of the pandemic

illustration: "Material World" column folded into a T-shirt shape
Photograph by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin

This article was published online on March 12, 2021.

Last May, when Connor Hitchcock decided to start a fundraiser for some out-of-work friends, he had modest expectations. Hitchcock and his wife, Christa, run Homefield Apparel, which licenses old collegiate sports logos to make vintage-inspired T-shirts and sweatshirts. They wanted to help out a handful of writers who had recently been furloughed from Vox Media’s college-football website, Banner Society. The couple drew up some designs based on inside jokes from the site’s two podcasts. Hitchcock didn’t tell the writers what he was up to. “I thought maybe we could raise $2,000 and help them buy some groceries,” he told me.

The response was enormous. In a short presale, Homefield sold thousands of T-shirts that would make sense only to devoted listeners. People wrote in asking to donate money on top of the price of the shirts; several pledged more than $1,000. In a few days, Homefield had raised $44,000. “It pointed to people’s own personal generosity, but also the motivations of people when they feel connected to others,” Hitchcock said. “Where you spend your money is, I think, ultimately the biggest sense of agency a lot of people have.”

I am a fan of Banner Society and its podcasts (I was a guest on one of them several years ago). I ordered one of each T-shirt design. Over the next six months, I kept buying tops adorned with niche jokes from podcasts, the names of local restaurants and concert venues, or logos from indie clothing brands. Also: tote bags, stickers, coffee mugs, and, yes, one wine key. Some of these items were explicitly marketed as fundraisers for businesses whose cash flow had been dented by the pandemic. Other purchases just struck me as a way to throw extra business to people who could probably use it.

In July, I ordered a $38 T-shirt emblazoned with the nonsense word Chattahucci—an homage to the 1992 song “Chattahoochee,” by Alan Jackson, and its deranged music video, in which the singer belts out his ode to the river that bisects metro Atlanta while water-skiing in jeans like an absolute legend. The name of the river was misspelled and printed in the style of Gucci’s logo, which doesn’t really have anything to do with the song, or the river. The shirt made me laugh—I was obsessed with the song as a kid growing up in Atlanta—and buying it felt like a good deed. I knew that its designer, the Texas-based indie music and apparel company Vinyl Ranch, could no longer stage the parties and performances that had been a big part of its business.

The Banner Society and chattahucci T-shirt purchases were out of character for me, as I don’t typically wear T-shirts. (Every time a new one arrived, I folded it up and tucked it away in a box under my bed.) Nor do I believe that merch alone can sustain businesses crippled by a deep economic crisis brought on by a global pandemic. But I wasn’t sure how else to help, and everywhere I looked, I noticed other people doing the same thing: posting their new tees on social media, along with information about where their followers could get one.

Buying a T-shirt may seem like an odd way of pledging support for furloughed workers or a struggling small business, but the tee surge isn’t entirely a product of the pandemic. For decades, Americans have been trained to see logos and slogans as a primary means of self-expression and even as a way of telegraphing values. Over the past 10 years, the practice has grown more pronounced; an increasing number of businesses—makeup brands, chain restaurants, museums, digital-media companies, exercise-equipment manufacturers—have urged their customers to wear their logos as if, say, Dunkin’ were a favorite sports team. They’ve had considerable success: The beauty brand Glossier, for example, reports that its signature pink hoodie, rereleased this summer, once had a 10,000-person waitlist. But in the past year, as the pandemic put millions out of work and isolated us from our communities and local comforts, this behavior took a new form. Eager to help those in need, and nostalgic for our pre-COVID-19 freedoms, we bought souvenirs of the year we went nowhere.

For most apparel brands, 2020 was devastating. Office workers are among the people most likely to spend significant amounts of disposable income on clothes. They are also the people most able to work from home, which means they currently don’t need much new clothing. Last spring, as such workers acclimated to the vagaries of Zoom, the market for virtually every kind of clothing but sweatpants and bike shorts evaporated. According to a Census Bureau analysis, the pandemic has hit clothing retailers even harder than bars and restaurants. Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy, as did the parent companies of office-wear brands such as Ann Taylor, JoS. A. Bank, and Men’s Wearhouse.

Adam Schwartz, a co-founder and the CEO of TeePublic, which custom-prints artist-submitted designs, initially braced for impact. “Sitting there in mid-March,” he told me, “we were like, What’s going to happen? This could be really bad.” Instead, TeePublic has seen its sales more than double. The site’s quick introduction of customizable masks helped, Schwartz said, but most of the sales increase came from T-shirts, tote bags, mugs, and pins the company had been selling all along. New varieties of these products have also proliferated. Suddenly, everyone seemed to have more time for creative work, and new people were joining the site. Schwartz described TeePublic’s average artist as someone who spends most of her day doing freelance graphic design and sells her own work as a side hustle.

Meanwhile, some bars and restaurants have managed to sell merch to now-absent patrons, replacing a portion of lost revenue. Brandon Hoy, the owner of the Brooklyn-based pizza restaurant Roberta’s, told me that customer support in the form of T-shirt, hat, and tote sales has been a vital source of cash flow during the pandemic. On its GoFundMe page, the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, suggests that, short of a straight-up donation, the best way to support the legendary music hall is to buy a T-shirt or hat. “Look sharp and represent your favorite venue while we work our way back to entertaining our beloved community,” reads a message from the manager, Jim Wilson.

That earnest calls to public action would come down to this—that in the middle of a pandemic, people would feel compelled to pledge allegiance via a T-shirt—makes a weird sort of sense. Almost from the moment that tees were embraced by the youth culture of the 1950s, they have fused fashion and identity, politics and commerce, in complicated ways. In the ’60s, they were used to signal affiliation with rebellious rock bands; by the ’ 70s, popular T-shirt slogans were decrying war and censorship—turning bodies into billboards and protest signs.

Like many countercultural symbols, the T-shirt was eventually co-opted by corporate America. People had shown themselves eager to associate with a movement or cause by stamping its slogans across their chest. As the Vietnam War gave way to the excesses of the ’80s, clothing companies made themselves the cause. An Esprit T-shirt evoked a gamine femininity. A Ralph Lauren polo, with its little embroidered pony, was a not-so-discreet marker of preppy wealth. Adidas gear indicated that you were clued into the nascent cultural power of hip-hop (or maybe that you just liked soccer).

More recently, as the country has experienced political and cultural upheaval on a scale unseen since the ’60s, brands have tailored their messages to the moment. Nike, a pioneer in marketing social responsibility, very publicly supported Colin Kaepernick’s campaign against police brutality, allowing those who care about the issue to feel, on some level, that their new Air Force 1s are a small rebuke to state violence. Other brands have struck similar poses, aligning themselves—and by extension, their logo-bedecked products—with the fights against racism, sexism, homophobia, or, in many cases, the public-relations-friendly catchall “inequality.” The Glossier Girl in her pink hoodie isn’t merely attractive enough to look great in the brand’s nearly invisible makeup—she also cares about gay rights. The Peloton Bro in his moisture-wicking tank isn’t just interested in his body-fat percentage—he also takes an interest in ending racism.

Conditioned by these and other companies to see our merch as an expression of our values, we have naturally come to the aid of bartenders and line cooks by shelling out for T-shirts. Indeed, merch has a big advantage over a mere donation: It confers cachet on those who wear it, not just for being charitable, but also for knowing the right things to support. Altruism, but make it fashion.

Even before the pandemic began, Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes had thought a lot about merch. Together, they host the podcast You’re Wrong About, which is part true crime, part history, and part media criticism. The show doesn’t run ads and has no paywall—you can listen for free. To make it, the hosts rely on listeners loving You’re Wrong About so much that they voluntarily kick in a few bucks a month via Patreon—or buy a T-shirt or tote bag.

At first, Marshall and Hobbes were hesitant to sell things to their listeners; their show is frequently critical of consumer culture and of capitalism more generally. But listeners kept sending them fan art and requests to put one-liners from popular episodes on something that they could buy to support the show. A few months before the pandemic began, the hosts relented—some of the listeners’ designs were too cute to resist. Since then, You’re Wrong About has continued to attract more and more listeners, perhaps in part because its criticisms of America’s inequities feel particularly urgent against the backdrop of the pandemic. It’s also sold more and more merch.

“A big hurdle that I had to get over was the idea that you aren’t necessarily attempting to cheat people just by agreeing to sell something to them,” Marshall told me. She began to view You’re Wrong About merch in a new way when she thought about certain possessions of her own—objects she’s collected that don’t serve much practical purpose, but that give her joy or comfort because of their association with other, less ownable things. This was, in essence, why I ended up with a chattahucci shirt I had no intention of wearing. Its existence—and the existence of someone else who loves the same weird combination of things I do—seemed worth the $38, especially since it was going to a small business hard-hit by a pandemic.

Of course, there’s only so much consumers can do to help; even in a best-case scenario, T-shirt sales can’t get a business through a pandemic—that’s what government subsidies should be for. And some businesses and individuals will have more access to consumer largesse than others. As Homefield Apparel’s Hitchcock noted to me, the T-shirt fundraiser was successful because Banner Society writers and podcasters had spent years building loyal audiences who were enthusiastic about helping when things went south. But not all businesses are equally suited to pandemic merch: Your local plumber may be beloved, but you’re probably not going to buy his T-shirt. Likewise, of the restaurateurs I spoke with, those who have had the most success raising extra money were already well known in food media, with an existing inventory of T-shirts and tote bags and a heavy dose of cultural status to confer on those who wore and used them. “The economics are good if you’re one of the top 10 percent of people” making podcasts or other types of content, Hobbes told me. “If you aren’t, they’re extremely bad.” Popularity is not a resource that scales very well.

Everyone I spoke with for this story was moved by the generosity of strangers who cared about them and their livelihoods—and frustrated that one of the best ways to cover expenses in a national emergency is to have spent years cultivating an audience that hopefully likes you enough to buy your T-shirt. “I think our best-selling shirt is the one that says it was capitalism all along,” Marshall told me. “That’s hilarious to me. I can’t believe people don’t make fun of us for that.”

This article appears in the April 2021 print edition with the headline “Our Sad Souvenirs of the Pandemic.”