01: voting is really cool, "vote" merch is not

Not even in tie-dye

Chris Black via Twitter

From hashtags to online ads, digital stickers and fake news, the internet’s influence on elections has been felt since 2008. On the one hand, the internet helped launch former President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. On the other, more malicious, hand it helped Trump win the election in 2016

Social media has engaged young voters through cutesy infographics and eloquent posts encouraging them not only to act on their right to vote, but to deepen their understanding of who and what they're voting for. Which is significant because when it comes to politics it’s an international joke that Americans are the only ones who seem to genuinely care about the chat-over-a-beer-ability of a candidate. These forums, for better and worse, have empowered voters by illuminating the collective impact individual choices have. Even when we’re talking into the echo-chamber of our curated feeds, to a self-selecting audience that’s half-listening, the state of politics in America has engendered an unprecedented level of political awareness and engagement by young people. Perhaps this is an instance of peer pressure being a good, a great thing!

Unsurprisingly, fashion took note.

image credit to Fashionista

Since 2018, during midterm elections, VOTE merchandise has been spotted on runways and in street style photographs. At the time, only two years into the current administration’s tenure, it was a big move by the ostensibly apolitical industry. It was the first time the four letter word was printed, sewn and embroidered on t-shirts, scarves, totes and cashmere sweaters. At that time, as is still the case, there was a charitable aspect to most of these projects. Donations were made to organizations doing work that ranged from combating murky voting policies to supporting voter engagement initiatives.

But that was 2018. 

That was before Trump started separating families and locking children in cages in the summer of 2019 through an irresponsibly rushed ICE operation, causing these families and children unimaginable psychological, physical and emotional trauma.

Before he rolled back EPA regulations on coal, which is a serious contributor to elevated levels of harmful greenhouse gases. 

And it was before he completely mishandled the U.S. response to coronavirus.

image credit to Forbes

This past September, Patagonia added a subtle political message to their clothing, which was unsurprising considering the brand has been vocal in their contempt for Trump’s policies—particularly when it comes to his stance on global warming. 

After the national reckoning we had about the covert and overt role of racism in the U.S. over the summer, the stakes of this year’s election became abundantly clear. And varying political responses to the violence disproportionately affecting Black people in the U.S. only further revealed that structural racism continues to be a partisan issue in this country. However, as the election started to come into view, most politically engaged designers (who tend to skew liberal…at least publicly) deferred the opportunity to take a clear stance against specific forms of injustice and instead started launching VOTE merch once again.

image credit to vogue.com

There were VOTE socks in August, made by Aurora James of Brother Vellies in collaboration with Keds, followed by Michael Kors’ $850 cashmere VOTE sweater, VOTE t-shirts, pendants, hoodies, and even VOTE Stuart Weitzman 5050 boots. 

VOTE even showed up in runway shows: Louis Vuitton and Christian Siriano both featured looks with the hottest verb of the season. 

Yet, as fashion critic Pierre Alexandre M'Pelé (aka @pam_boy) pointed out: 

Pierre Alexandre M’Pelé via Twitter

Truly 🤷, but more so 🤦‍♀️.

It’s a paradox that maybe would’ve been funny if the circumstances weren’t as dire as they are.

The vague calls to vote we’ve seen from fashion celebrities and social media personalities, across brands and publications, are not nearly as effective as they purport to be. After all, have you ever done that thing where you keep repeating a word until it loses its meaning? Even with the charitable financial aspect tied to the release of culturally relevant merch (though it’s worth noting that not all brands are donating proceeds to an organization supporting voters or the challenger’s campaign), at this point it would simply be bad business if they didn’t produce these pieces. 

In the Digital Age we’ve mastered our ability to be personal and universal at the same time. Most brands previously steered clear of polarizing issues by refusing to comment on them at all, for fear of alienating viable customers. Although that fear clearly still lingers, companies have found a way to capitalize on the need to be political right now by doing so in the most generic ways possible, carefully avoiding potential liabilities or financial ramifications. And although the messaging is implied, for the most part, these pieces fall short of having any real substance. Hence, VOTE and not VOTE BIDEN/ HARRIS.

While more meaningful than wedge sneakers or minuscule handbags, VOTE merch is a trend that will have the same life cycle as any trendy piece. It will be worn until November 3rd and instead of making a comeback in 15-20 years, as is usually the case with fashion, it may be worn every 2 years on election days. But during the intervening time these pieces are going to end up in the back of closets or tangled in jewelry boxes—more stuff that didn’t really need to be made or bought. VOTE gear doesn’t immediately present itself as a trend but it is, and once again where we see unabating consumerism colliding with environmental and ethical concerns regarding trend-driven fashion.

Most of these items lack the nuance and depth that used to make fashion actually political. Some examples: (particularly in the early years of her career in the 1980s) Vivienne Westwood has always brought politics into her work; Alexander McQueen held up a mirror to British society with his controversial “Highland Rape” collection in 1995, confronting England’s violent colonization of Scotland and issue with sexual violence; and André 3000’s 2014 tour jumpsuits were simple but very powerful. Fashion has become as conceptually tepid as it has aesthetically, yet is targeted at relatively well-informed, supposedly progressive late Millennials and Gen Zers. But maybe that’s because this isn’t fashion, it’s industry merchandise.

Merchandise—whether its for a museum, a musical artist, a niche defunct company, a restaurant, a university, a film production company, a team, a fashion brand—allow us to embody whatever quality is aspirational about a recognizable logo or image or word on a t-shirt, simply by knowing about it and wearing it. We have grown up in a society where brands across industries have always provided us with objects to reveal something about our interests and beliefs, but the fashion industry has perfected their dissemination of accessible-but-exclusive merch. Furthermore, what’s particularly fascinating is that the design value of well-chosen fonts and color combinations imbue articles of clothing with meaning and personality not inherent to the object itself, furthering the supersession of craftsmanship for hype in an industry that is supposed to do what others can’t with regard to clothing.

But ultimately, this reflects the direction fashion, and our culture at large, is moving. Considering we only have people’s attention for maybe three seconds as they walk or scroll by us, garments that deliberately embody our personal values or interests or attributes is largely what we expect from fashion these days, only furthering the importance of brand-association for both customers and companies. This is all to say that like other kinds of merch, VOTE merch is merely a form of brand promotion. What’s startling if you think about it for a minute too long is this isn’t from a concert, where we buy overpriced merch to have a memento by which we can remember a great night and bring a bit of an artist’s aesthetic into our wardrobe. This stuff is supposedly for our democracy—very different spheres being flattened to the same level. In that regard, what distinguishes Patagonia’s messaging, despite being hidden from public view, is that it wasn’t ambiguous. Somehow the brazen call to action by most brands is far less inspiring than the inconspicuous dig on the back of a tag people rarely check. The more I type this out the more surreal it feels that our culture has become such that wearing mildly political gear is intended to signal political engagement. In short, fonts aesthetically arranged in 2020, 1990s logomania/ Y2K-revival aesthetics almost make a mockery of the significance of voting this year.

So, if we’re going to wear VOTE merch, may I suggest we make it ourselves? With garments we already have? And donate the money we would've spent directly to any of the organizations (i.e. Fair Fight, When We All Vote, She Should Run) these brands are supporting? Because even when the proceeds of an item go to a non-profit organization, we’re still creating the positive feedback loop that encourages a fashion system wherein brands cut big checks from virtue signaling rather than actually doing the work to help make momentous change—both in and out of the industry. If fashion wants to actually start wielding its cultural, social, economic and political influence, great. In fact, it would be pretty remarkable. But change isn’t a t-shirt telling us to VOTE into the void.

And a final note: With 10 days left before the election, let this be the umpteenth reminder you have to figure out your plan to vote and to stick by it. Share it with a friend so you can hold each other accountable.