For most apparel brands, 2020 was devastating. Office workers are among the people most likely to spend significant amounts of disposable income on clothes. They are also the people most able to work from home, which means they currently don’t need much new clothing. Last spring, as such workers acclimated to the vagaries of Zoom, the market for virtually every kind of clothing but sweatpants and bike shorts evaporated. According to a Census Bureau analysis, the pandemic has hit clothing retailers even harder than bars and restaurants. Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy, as did the parent companies of office-wear brands such as Ann Taylor, JoS. A. Bank, and Men’s Wearhouse.
Adam Schwartz, a co-founder and the CEO of TeePublic, which custom-prints artist-submitted designs, initially braced for impact. “Sitting there in mid-March,” he told me, “we were like, What’s going to happen? This could be really bad.” Instead, TeePublic has seen its sales more than double. The site’s quick introduction of customizable masks helped, Schwartz said, but most of the sales increase came from T-shirts, tote bags, mugs, and pins the company had been selling all along. New varieties of these products have also proliferated. Suddenly, everyone seemed to have more time for creative work, and new people were joining the site. Schwartz described TeePublic’s average artist as someone who spends most of her day doing freelance graphic design and sells her own work as a side hustle.
Meanwhile, some bars and restaurants have managed to sell merch to now-absent patrons, replacing a portion of lost revenue. Brandon Hoy, the owner of the Brooklyn-based pizza restaurant Roberta’s, told me that customer support in the form of T-shirt, hat, and tote sales has been a vital source of cash flow during the pandemic. On its GoFundMe page, the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, suggests that, short of a straight-up donation, the best way to support the legendary music hall is to buy a T-shirt or hat. “Look sharp and represent your favorite venue while we work our way back to entertaining our beloved community,” reads a message from the manager, Jim Wilson.
That earnest calls to public action would come down to this—that in the middle of a pandemic, people would feel compelled to pledge allegiance via a T-shirt—makes a weird sort of sense. Almost from the moment that tees were embraced by the youth culture of the 1950s, they have fused fashion and identity, politics and commerce, in complicated ways. In the ’60s, they were used to signal affiliation with rebellious rock bands; by the ’ 70s, popular T-shirt slogans were decrying war and censorship—turning bodies into billboards and protest signs.
Like many countercultural symbols, the T-shirt was eventually co-opted by corporate America. People had shown themselves eager to associate with a movement or cause by stamping its slogans across their chest. As the Vietnam War gave way to the excesses of the ’80s, clothing companies made themselves the cause. An Esprit T-shirt evoked a gamine femininity. A Ralph Lauren polo, with its little embroidered pony, was a not-so-discreet marker of preppy wealth. Adidas gear indicated that you were clued into the nascent cultural power of hip-hop (or maybe that you just liked soccer).