It’s Fashion Week, apparently, and Hillary Clinton—who has long counted top designers among her supporters—is seeking to capitalize on it with a series of fancy T-shirts designed by people like Tory Burch and Marc Jacobs.
I, for one, object. Not because of the price—$45 is a lot, but these are basically fundraising tools and I’m not the target market anyway, so whatever. Nor is my objection that they’re bad-looking shirts. The shirts are pretty nice! Too nice, in fact, which is the problem.
Here, look at a couple more:
These shirts seem to occupy an unhappy medium. They’re fairly attractive, and in fact may not serve as great advertising for the candidate; but they’re also political T-shirts, which means it’s strange to just wear them around. Who wears a political shirt to the club/craft cocktail bar/single-source pour-over cafe?
Here’s a harsh truth: Political swag should be ugly. I was reminded of this attending a rally featuring Bill Clinton on Tuesday, where some of the older attendees had dug out their vintage 1992 campaign gear. The Clinton-Gore logo was delightfully plain: just the faintly seriffed names of the candidates, a diagonal line, and a flag motif, all in red, white, and blue.
The 1996 logo was even worse, looking like it could have been made in Microsoft Paint on Windows 3.1, and maybe it was. Bob Dole’s was more obtusely fuddy-duddy still. Were these signs left over from his 1980 campaign?
All of this campaign swag was terrible, and consequently it was great. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a ’90s kid, but these strike as the perfect version of the campaign logo. In 2000, the Bush-Cheney campaign went with big blocky letters, and then just re-used that look in 2004.
The 2000 Gore-Lieberman logo, with its period-piece swoop, ripped right from the Ameritech logo, screams “early dot-com boom.”
Needless to say, no one would ever to think to turn these into “nice” clothing. The swag for lower-level campaigns is often even worse, with awful graphic design printed on day-glo green, bright white, and mustard yellow. (Just look at this!) The point of these garments is not to look good. It’s to imprint a candidate’s name as memorably and bluntly as possible. These are functional items, not formal ones, and certainly not flattering ones.
Do you ever see anyone wearing such shirts out on the street? Of course not. Sure, sometimes you’ll see someone wearing a Reagan-Bush shirt, or even a Mondale-Ferraro shirt, but that’s because they’ve become ironic retro-chic, not because they’re cool. By the second week of November, the ideal campaign shirt is packed away in permanent storage, tossed into a Planet Aid clothes bin, or relegated to workout-wear status. If your candidate won, then you don’t need to brag; if your candidate lost, why would you want to advertise your affiliation?
Where did everything go wrong? It’s yet another excuse to say: Thanks, Obama. During the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton went with a classic bland logo, all flag motifs and red, white, and blue. The Obama campaign, both fostering and recognizing its candidate’s special appeal, crafted one of the best and most distinctive political logos in history. (John McCain, in contrast, went with a totally forgettable design, sans-serif type in, for some reason, blue, yellow, and white.) For younger voters, backing Barack Obama became more than just a statement of political support; it was an aesthetic and social choice. As a result, wearing the Obama logo became not just a political statement but a fashion one.
Once the election was over, the swag didn’t go away. Obama gear remained popular among young white liberals and older black ones, too. Obama also worked to create ties with the fashion industry, producing things like a Tory Burch special edition inauguration tote. And now we have Hillary Clinton, a candidate who is looking to succeed Obama, taking on his mantle. Possibly literally. Something tasteful, in solid colors, but with a nice cut. Maybe by Ralph Lauren.
That brings us to Donald Trump. Whatever else he has done to erode the important norms of American democracy and society, Trump has upheld the traditional values of campaign swag. Consider the Make America Great Again hat. The classic version came in just two colors: blue on white, and white on red. (Others, like orange on camo, have since been added.) They’re not good hats: With their high crowns, pointy corners, and most of all that cheesy braid along the brim, they look like something you found stashed in the back of your grandfather’s closet. They don’t look good on anyone, and they particularly look ridiculous on Trump, who insists on donning them over his majestic coif, paired with a dark suit. In short, the Trump hat is a perfect piece of campaign gear. He has made swag great again.