Right after the 2016 election, clothing emblazoned with political themes—including “Love Is Love,” “Break Down Walls” and, of course, “The Future Is Female”—started flying off the runway and into the hands of bereft consumers who were mourning Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency. This was the era of the Women’s March, and Women’s March–era merch was ascendant. Meena Harris, the niece of the now–vice president, started her statement T-shirt company in early 2017; her “Phenomenal Woman” T-shirts were wildly popular, modeled by celebrities like Serena Williams, Lizzo, and Viola Davis.
Since then, popular political protest messaging has evolved.
The hot new way to showcase political identification through clothing is no longer about broad anti-Trump sentiments or blanket feminist messaging (and it’s certainly not about simple displays of party affiliation.) No, the ascendant political merch of our period is niche, insider-y, and internet joke–adjacent.
Take the merch that came out of the recent spat between Brittany Aldean, social media influencer and wife of country music star Jason Aldean, and Maren Morris, the country music superstar.
The Aldeans are conservative; they have made that clear on numerous occasions. But we can’t know for sure if Brittany Aldean intended to start a cultural tussle when she posted a video of herself to her Instagram in late August. The video, set to Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U,” showed Aldean putting on makeup, alongside the caption: “I’d really like to thank my parents for not changing my gender when I went through my tomboy phase. I love this girly life.”
Cassadee Pope, a singer in Nashville, responded by tweeting: “You’d think celebs with beauty brands would see the positives in including LGBTQ+ people in their messaging. But instead here we are, hearing someone compare their ‘tomboy phase’ to someone wanting to transition. Real nice.” Country superstar Maren Morris joined in a few days later, writing about Aldean: “It’s so easy to, like, not be a scumbag human? Sell your clip-ins and zip-it Insurrection Barbie.” (The Aldeans support Donald Trump, but we can’t say whether they were insurrectionists; on Jan. 6, according to Rolling Stone, Brittany Aldean posted a debunked claim that the insurrectionists at the Capitol were representatives of “Philly Antifa.” Instagram removed the post, and Aldean said the removal was a form of censorship).
A frenzy began. Right-wing commentator Candace Owens told Morris to “grow up.” (Morris responded, “Oh my god, not you.”) Aldean accused Pope of “advocating for the genital mutilation of children under the disguise of love,” latching onto a popular transphobic conservative talking point, calling gender-affirming care “one of the worst evils.” The headlines were screaming, and the politicians piled on. Jason Aldean’s PR firm dropped him as a client, and Ted Cruz asked if the agency was “OK with the genital mutilation of children?” (Gender-affirming care is known to decrease the risk of suicide and depression among transgender youth.)
Brittany Aldean then released a line of “Barbie inspired” clothing (as she described it) emblazoned with the phrase “Don’t Tread On Our Kids.” The phrase is an adaptation of the one associated with the Gadsden flag, which was created during the American Revolution and has become a symbol of the tea party and other far-right and militia groups. Aldean followed the announcement with an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show where she doubled down on her transphobic views. Carlson, aghast, per usual, proceeded to call Morris a “lunatic country music person.” And Morris responded by selling tees with that very phrase on them.
Both merch lines sold quickly. Aldean’s line sold out, and Morris sold enough T-shirts to raise more than $150,000 for transgender rights organizations, a figure she tweeted and that was also confirmed by GLAAD. Proceeds are being split between GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program and Trans Lifeline.
New Niche Just Dropped
The lesson here is pretty simple. Both Aldean’s line and Morris’ T-shirt gave consumers a chance to present—or perform—political identification through clothing. They also give consumers a chance to support a cause they care about.
But the statements—especially the one on Morris’ clothing—are niche on a global scale. Wearing a T-shirt that says “Lunatic Country Music Person” is a marker of both support for a cause and niche understanding of an internet spat between celebrities.
Buying T-shirts hawked by celebrities or politicians—or those famous people who live in between those labels—is obviously nothing new. But the embrace of drops of limited-edition clothing that signifies identity owes a lot to the micromerch craze.
Social media has made it easy for influencers and celebrities, even those with the smallest of followings, to create and sell limited-edition merch that only a select few can have (or want to have). Those who snag tees, hats, and more can signal their belonging to an exclusive group. Among like-minded people, they have the status of being “in the know.”
It’s hard to say how many more people are buying limited-edition clothing that both showcases niche cultural cachet and establishes specific political identifications. Several consumer data firms were unable to provide insight on this kind of trend. (And how could they? It’s one-off clothing that doesn’t declare a partisan political affiliation outright and can be made by virtually anybody, at any scale of celebrity.)
But the fact that Morris sold as many tees as she did—$150,000 worth—points to a national affinity for this kind of merchandise.
The “Let’s Go Brandon” in the Room
Obviously, many people still love broad political statement T-shirts and hats. But even the ubiquitous “Let’s Go Brandon” shirts and hats and flags and moccasins that have flooded the country are in keeping with the political micromerch pattern of niche internet joke becoming political signifier—that is then displayed on clothing.
Let’s revisit the story, in brief: In October, while race car driver Brandon Brown was being interviewed by Kelli Stavast of NBC Sports at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, fans in the crowd were chanting “Fuck Joe Biden.” Stavast said, on the live broadcast, that the crowd was yelling “Let’s go Brandon,” but those watching and listening could tell that that was not what was being said. Soon, the phrase was showing up everywhere, a sly stand-in for a more obscene sentiment. Now it is practically as ubiquitous as “Make America Great Again.”
The upshot: More and more, political merchandise acts as a marker of identity that allows people to signal to others with shared views (and social media bubbles) who they are and which tribe they belong to.
And it’s not just clothing, although politically infused garments remain one of the most prominent ways people display their political views in public. Yard signs have also morphed from seasonal displays of candidate names and slogans to full declarations of beliefs—sometimes quite literally! (“In this house, we believe,” etc.)
Anand Sokhey, Todd Makse, and Scott Minkoff are political scientists who wrote about the politics of yard signs in their 2019 book Politics on Display: Yard Signs and the Politicization of Social Spaces. Over email, they said that they see a connection between campaign yard signs, people’s displays of other political symbols and signs, like “Blue Lives Matter” flags or Ukrainian flags, for example, and things like the merchandise in the Morris–Aldean feud.
“One of the reasons we think yard signs are important to study is because they can serve as markers of identity, tying a person’s beliefs to a specific place, and confronting people with this information as a part of everyday life (in a different way than with online expression, which is selected/screened in different ways),” the professors said in a shared statement.
“It’s like there’s social value (for some people) in not only putting one’s politics on display, but showing that you’re hip to the latest weird discourse stuff,” they continued. “When people wear merchandise with political slogans, they are also putting their identity out there for all to see.”
Even if only a small number of people will understand it.