Fashion has always been political, and the protest tee has been a staple in closets around the world for decades. Vivenne Westwood used tee shirts to promote anarchy and spark a British punk rebellion in the 70s and 80s. Katherine Hamnett pushed political agendas and advocated for worthy causes with bold block lettering. If first impressions are everything and clothes tell a story, shirts emblazoned with slogans are a way to let the world know what you stand for without saying a word.
Like any other popular clothing item, protest tees were always due for a comeback. But their recent revival says more about our social and political climate than it does about cyclical fashion trends.
“It was just this moment of like, ‘Wow, fuck you.’”
That’s how Amanda Brinkman explains her inspiration for the most visible protest tee of 2016. Brinkman’s “Nasty Woman” shirt came after the art curator decided to vent her frustrations during the presidential debates by experimenting with her newfound love of graphic design.
Brinkman took the slur Donald Trump directed towards opponent Hillary Clinton and put her own cheeky spin on it – wrapping the insult in a pink heart on a plain white tee.
“For me, that was an even bigger fuck you,” she says. “I’m going to make this fun and sweet and you can go fuck yourself.”
After posting the design on her shop Google Ghost, Brinkman shared it on Instagram, and woke up to over 20,000 emails and the news that the story of her shirt had been picked up by New York Magazine and Teen Vogue. She’d officially gone viral.
This story isn’t particularly uncommon in the Trump Era. From Etsy shop owners to sellers on sites like Redbubble and Tee Spring, savvy designers and budding brands have been capitalizing on the outrage our president stirs up.
Redbubble CEO Martin Hosking notes that the website currently houses more than 33,000 Trump-related images on retail items — with covfefe causing a recent spike in that number.
“About 40% of all sales come from works that are less than one year old,” he says. “Political memes are one of the drivers of sales.”
Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychology expert at the Fashion Institute of Technology says that the polarization our president stirs up has left people more comfortable sharing political views.
“People are being a bit more fearless with their political decisions,” she says. “They also want to belong, to have a sense of community. If they wear a shirt that says, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ they want people to know, ‘Hey, I belong to this community.’
But these opportunities to connect to like-minded people and share allegiances don’t come without a cost.