Who among us has not glimpsed a woman, at least from afar, proudly wearing a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt? Or a “Pussy Grabs Back” shirt? Or any kind of tee that speaks to and with the public, using style and aesthetics to signal the wearer’s insistent lack of complacency about a range of sociopolitical policies?
It started when the outcome of the presidential race was still up in the air. After now-President Trump called former Secretary of State and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during the third and final presidential debate, the market for merchandise bearing the new rallying cry of women who had been similarly belittled throughout their lifetimes exploded. Google Ghost’s “Nasty Woman” T-shirt became an iconic, must-have fashion item overnight — plus, the company gave 50 percent of the proceeds to Planned Parenthood — a total of $125,165 since the launch. Also catching on instantly were the “Pussy Grabs Back” T-shirts by Female Collective, emerging in response to the now-infamous Trump-Billy Bush Access Hollywood tape; a portion of those proceeds went to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.
Post-election, similar statement shirts seem to be even more ubiquitous, with “protest tees” dominating the runways in February at New York Fashion Week and brands increasingly paying attention to what can only be described as the “activist market.”
Everlane, for example, the web-based brand founded on the notion of “radical transparency” when it comes to its manufacturing and sales models, launched its “100% Human” collection on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, with $5 from every item sold going to the American Civil Liberties Union. The entire collection practically sold out in a matter of days, and a restock in February sold out in one day. In fact, Everlane, to date, has raised $68,000 for the ACLU through a combination of product sales and a social campaign launched on Twitter in which customers nominate friends to the ACLU to be honored with $1,000 donations by Everlane.
This week, on March 8, Everlane will launch its latest iteration of its 100% Human collection — the 100% Human Woman collection, in honor of International Women’s Day. The brand plans to do more with the 100% Human collection throughout the year, because of overwhelming support from their customers.
— Everlane (@Everlane) March 1, 2017
“The support we have seen through our 100% Human Collection has shown us that now more than ever, our customers not only want to support crucial organizations like the ACLU but they also want to share their values with the world,” the Everlane team tells Yahoo Style. “Whether that’s by simply wearing the tee or sharing on social, the 100% Human message creates a conversation around inclusion and unity.”
Molly Smith, who founded activist T-shirt line I Feel Like Hillz — an online Hillary merchandise store and social forum for people who weren’t only with her but believe they feel like her — tells Yahoo Style that Election Day and the following day were two of her biggest sales days in 2016.
— Caroline Slason (@CarolineSlason) February 15, 2017
“Sales the week after the election were also huge, because people were so angry — everyone still wanted [the now sold-out] Madam President shirts,” Smith says. And she doesn’t anticipate the anger — and market for such merchandise — subsiding anytime soon.
“Anger, pride, and Instagram are driving this. People want to express their beliefs and show what side they’re on. And social media is their mouthpiece,” Smith says. “Also, Bernie Bros have come back into the fold! There’s a sense that the left is all in this together now.”
She adds that, in her view, it only makes sense to see design and fashion thrive and play a critical role in the post-election wave of activism.
“I’ve always believed good design is an agent of progress — it shows that the creator has empathized with the end user. Great design makes us feel good, even when we don’t realize it,” Smith says. “This is true for things as significant as IKEA’s simple homes for refugee camps, for example, and as trivial as a rad T-shirt. Color, typography, and shape are so important in conveying a certain mood, and if people have an emotional connection to something, it’s more likely to resonate with them for the long term. So when we see a well-designed protest sign, street stencil, or shirt, we’re more likely to remember it and feel inspired to share and take action.”
That’s a notion that’s been taken to heart by Pamela Bell, one of the original co-founders of the Kate Spade brand. For the past few years, she’s been working to use fashion to advocate for social good through her seemingly prescient line of activist T-shirts and totes, Prinkshop.
Explaining Prinkshop’s origins to Yahoo Style, Bell says, “I have teenagers, and they were buying things with graphics on them that didn’t mean anything. I thought: What if you could be your own advertisement instead of having images projected onto you? What if you could wear what you believe in? You can be the ad for that. You can wear what you care about as a badge of courage.”
The timing for thinking about fashion in that kind of way, of course, has never seemed more relevant.
Still, Bell notes, “I don’t take on the negative. I never did a ‘nasty woman’ or ‘dump Trump’ — I try to stay all positive. When you wear something positive and you care about it and believe in it and are positive, that’s when change comes.” She adds that she doesn’t identify as part of the so-called “resistance,” but rather “pro-proactive projections of change.”
And what better way to project that change than through fashion? Bell asks.
“Everyone gets changed into a different outfit every day — that gives you the chance to wear something you care about daily, to send a message,” she says. “We have a flip tag on the bottom of our shirts — you can flip them up and you’ll see a bit of information on the bottom of the shirt that, for example, really tells you about Roe v. Wade [in the case of the brand’s iconic 1973 shirt]. They’re not just shirts — they’re educational tools.”
Like so many others in the space — though Bell is unquestionably one of the trailblazers — the Prinkshop line owner also donates a portion from sales of every shirt or tote bag sold to the causes that directly work, organize, and lobby on those issues.
Oh, and regarding critics who undermine the armchair advocacy of T-shirt activism, Bell — for one — is quick to call them out.
“It’s an engagement beyond, ‘Oh, I’ve worn my shirt and done my part. People are taking selfies and posting and spreading the word — there is a movement happening,” she says. “If you’re wearing a high-fashion handbag and you see someone else wearing that same bag, it’s not the same reaction if you’re walking down the street wearing a 1973 shirt and see someone else wearing one. It makes you think, ‘Oh — you’re on my team.’ It created community, and communities are at the forefront of making social change. No one person can do it by themselves. So I’m trying to create a community around these issues, and hopefully people will get together beyond that. I hope people say, ‘I’m grabbing my T-shirt and going to a meeting!’” she says.
She also says that businesses like hers are, fundamentally, “in the basic business of raising funds. We’re making strides in making big donations to not-for-profits that are always, always asking for dollars and grants.” Bell says she started her business “to help support not-for-profits in their own fundraising. We can go to a Center for Reproductive Rights luncheon and sell our products right there and cross generations. Grandmothers, mothers, and daughters are all buying and wearing the same shirts.”
Robyn Kanner, who works by day as an art director for Amazon and designed a T-shirt reading, “Let Trans Women Live,” agrees that T-shirt activism is not solely about making an easy statement and then going back to your business. For starters, all proceeds for that shirt go to Trans Lifeline. And Kanner says that for her, and for many, the road to activism takes place in steps — and wearing a T-shirt is a good possibility for a first step.
“Wearing a shirt doesn’t mean the end all of activism,” she explains. “But the reason I made the ‘Let Trans Women Live’ shirt is because I thought it would be pretty revolutionary for people to be able to walk around wearing a shirt that talks about trans women. Visibility has an impact. In the trans community, the people who show up and talk about this is us. But it would be pretty cool for other people to say it, too.”
— raq (@raqueldesigns) February 23, 2017
And particularly when it comes to an issue like trans rights, a tee can be a kind of valuable shorthand, Kanner says.
“People who want to tell me they’re cool about me being trans want to come up to me at moments when maybe I don’t want to talk about it. [Wearing the shirt] is a way to talk about it, but on my own time,” she says. “It humanizes the moment — and the more human it becomes, the more people don’t have to stop trans people on the street to tell them they’re cool with trans people. I want trans people to be normalized in the cultural conversation.”
She does acknowledge the level of inherent privilege that comes with being able to wear the shirt in the first place. “You must be able to wear it without fear of physical violence, with having to deal with the moment of someone asking you, ‘Are you trans? And then being able to answer, ‘Oh, I’m not,’ or ‘Oh, I am,’” she said. “But either way, it then sparks a moment of being able to have a really important conversation or moment of being able to say, ‘I think trans women should be able to be.’ And for people in the community, to see people wearing a shirt that says this, it can let us know — especially for those who are not out — that other people are OK with us existing. There’s someone in the room who has their back if they see someone wearing this shirt. And all those pieces are really valuable.”
— Robyn Kanner (@robynkanner) February 23, 2017
Smith echoes that statement, saying she does understand why people criticize T-shirt activism, but she’s still an advocate. “I think that more visibility and engagement on these topics is always better. It starts a conversation that many people in the suburban Midwest, for example, wouldn’t be having otherwise,” she says. “And I reject the idea that people believe their work is done after they buy a T-shirt. If anything, it gets them thinking about what else they can and should be doing.”
My @robynkanner shirt came in the mail ✨
— Kelsey Scherer (@kelsa_) February 22, 2017
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