Warning: This article discusses potentially triggering topics, including sexual assault.
In this country, we get dressed to work or to fight. Almost all of American fashion originated in the military, like the bomber jacket and the double-breasted suit, or to serve a professional purpose, like denim. Both is preferable, the two-for-one ethos as American as drive-thru apple pie. In 1913, the t-shirt became part of the U.S. Navy’s standard-issue uniform, and it’s been a form of identification ever since, whether for an individual or for an institution. The printed t-shirt with a political slogan has always done double duty: They quickly express opinions, and they start fights. They identify you as part of a group in that satisfyingly adolescent (another American invention, the teenager) way of forcing your opinion to the front: Even if you never say a word, no one can miss what you’re saying when your torso is a billboard for your beliefs.
Also at Trump rally: teenage protestors. Anna Lehane displays homemade shirt, says it was "civic duty" to speak out. pic.twitter.com/U7UXzdnddE— Laura McCrystal (@LMcCrystal) October 10, 2016
On Monday, Anna Lehane attended a Donald Trump rally wearing the above t-shirt, which she made herself with a few iron-on letters. She went with two friends wearing similar homemade shirts (theirs said “Black Lives Matter”) and told the Washington Post that she wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but she did see “a man sporting a shirt that said, ‘She’s a c---t. Vote for Trump!’” She also “noticed people staring at her, but not necessarily in a mean way,” and “one guy, wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, complimented her outfit.” Another man told her he loved a dare; she told him that was assault.
Here are just a few of the t-shirts we’ve seen used to make a political statement in the last few months: In July, the WNBA attempted to fine players for wearing t-shirts that read, “#BlackLivesMatter,” and then quickly rescinded the penalty. In May, Teen Vogue reported that students at St. Olaf College wore t-shirts that said “Ask Me How My College Is Protecting My Rapist.” Donald Trump’s hat printed with his preferred slogan lent itself to parody much too easily, and many people capitalized to make their own versions (“Make Radiohead Great Again,” “Make America Read Again,” “Make America Feel Again,” etc.). Krystal Lake made her own version — “America Was Never Great” — and wore it to work at Home Depot. She got death threats; she told the New York Times she planned to buy more.
Before that, suffragettes wore sashes that demanded a vote for women, and female supporters of Eisenhower wore dresses that said “Ike” on them. At UC Berkley, Ph.D. candidate Kimberly McNair studies the way images from the Black Power movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s are made into t-shirts in a practice she calls “wearing history.” Shelley Niro’s 2003 video piece, The Shirt, which showed five different versions of a traditional tourist t-shirt forced, for once, to tell the truth (“My ancestors were annihilated exterminated murdered and massacred,” “They were lied to cheated tricked and deceived,” “Attempts were made to assimilate colonize enslave and displace them,” “And all’s I get is this shirt.”), satirized both the practice of and the fatigue at turning a t-shirt into a political statement. Women have a way of getting their point across, even if it means ripping out their hearts for their sleeves.
When you’re a teenager, or an activist, or a voter, and no one is listening to you, a plain white t-shirt and a few iron-on letters is something. Because this is a fight. A pointed t-shirt is not the strongest weapon of choice for a fight of this magnitude — although at this point, god help us, I can’t think of what is — but it has its own kind of power with its own kind of purpose. And Donald Trump is his own kind of all-American invention: entirely new, even if he’s as familiar as any dinner-table bully. His mannerisms and rhetoric — forceful, loud, threats no less terrifying for being empty — are reminders of men we all know but are still (still, always) horrified to see as legitimate presidential candidates. They’re the family members we’re forced to tolerate, the bosses we’re compelled to respect; men who are in love with their own unexamined power but have no words to explain the fear they feel in the face of losing it. They are left, instead, with pure bluster. “You don’t know what you're talking about” is a favorite phase, as is “You're lying,” or, “That’s crazy!” They can’t let anyone else win an argument, but they have nothing to say in their defense. They threaten, they intimidate, they bully, they bluff. We know this. We’ve known this. And yet here we are, again, watching a man we recognize from our dinner tables and jobs and subway rides and bars and house parties and elevators and hallways — from every unlit, unseen corner of our lives, the settings of every but who would believe you? we keep extensively, internally catalogued — reach the most powerful position available to a future loser in America. Watching such a specific and universal experience permeate the highest rung of our political system, right there under the brightest lights and preachiest pulpits, is a threat regardless.
Trump has been making threats against women his entire campaign, but we’ve now collectively agreed on a turning point: Last week’s leaked recordings which featured him bragging about doing whatever he wanted to women, because he knew they were fundamentally powerless in almost every physical or political sense. As more women come forward to say that yes, he did exactly what he said he does, Trump has denied his own self-incrimination, but it’s too late. We know what he’s saying. We know what he means. And we know what he does. He’s as unfit to serve as president as his suits are unfit to be worn, we know, but these homemade, hand-drawn items of clothing are dinner-table rebellions: incremental at large, maybe, but glaringly obvious up close. There’s still work to be done, and there’s more fighting to do. Our t-shirts can do both.
With additional research by Gabby Noone.