By Emma Pearse
Sunday, September 5, 2004
A cottage industry of political T-shirts and underwear for women is springing up this election season. Designers hope that the frequently off-color fashion statements will fire up political participation by young women who didn't vote in 2000.
(WOMENSENEWS)--On a recent Saturday afternoon, Hogan Gorman was on her way to a T-shirt party on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She carried two plastic bags full of her own Tees, in red, orange, green, and gray and in men's, women's and children's styles and sizes.
"Just a bunch of my friends," she says. "We'll hang out and, hopefully, they'll buy T-shirts."
Gorman's latest T-shirt exhorts women to vote: a striking red children's Tee that reads "Vote Because I Can't."
Around the country, from Los Angeles to St. Paul-Minneapolis to New York, women like Gorman--many of them artists, writers, actors, teachers--have started profit, nonprofit, and activist-based companies out of their own homes, as a way of getting politically active and inspiring others like them to do the same.
Most of them are in their 20s and their target market is single contemporaries, many of whom didn't bother to vote in the last general election. Of the 40 million eligible women who did not vote, about 22 million were single women, according to "Women's Voices. Women Vote," a Washington-based project aimed at increasing the share of unmarried women in the electorate. This group of women now constitutes a significant portion of the country's hotly pursued swing vote.
This time around, women are galvanized by many issues, but chief among them are the threats to Roe vs. Wade, which guarantees women the constitutional right to making their own, private decisions about abortion, the war in Iraq and the flagging economy.
"It's not only the fact that they're trying to take away women's rights which were fought for so long," says Gorman. "A woman's right to choose . . . I thought we dealt with all that a long time ago with Roe vs. Wade. But also the war is a huge thing. They lied to us," she said, referring to claims that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction, "and now there are all these men and women over there flapping in the wind. You just have to ask yourself why?"
But Gorman didn't only cogitate. She began fuelling the fashion rage for outrageous political T-shirts and underwear.
Some of the more in-your-face fashion statements are a turn off to some women--especially those of the older and more modest variety.
"I think they're young and naive and probably very dedicated to what they believe in," said one delegate at last week's Republican convention.
But some of these makers of political street wear are not concerned with social acceptability. Their mission is subversion, turning women's sex appeal--much exploited by conventional retailers and advertisers--in an anti-establishment and defiant direction.
In the words of one group--Axis of Eve, a New York-based anti-war, activist group--the idea is to turn the everyday allure of cotton and color into "a weapon of mass seduction" that mocks the Bush administration's weapons-of-mass-destructions pre-war allegations against Iraq.
At last week's Republican Convention the group staged a "mass flash" or "thong throng" in what Axis of Eve organizers and followers called "Operation Depose and Expose." In a display that caught the attention of many TV news cameras, groups of women flashed red, fuschia, black, and lavender underpants. "Weapon of Mass Seduction" was emblazoned on many a rear end, along with slogans such as "My Cherry for Kerry" and "Expose Bush."
Tasha Eve is the code name used by an Axis of Eve co-founder. "The gesture of the flash is a symbolic demand for the uncovering and accountability of political actions," she says. (The history professor and 20-something New Yorker goes by the code name for various reasons, including her desire to shield her politically active identity from her students.)
Before its mass flash that took place in Manhattan's Battery Park on the Saturday before the RNC 2004, the group's most public flash so far was at the March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C., in April. There the group sold out their entire inventory of 400 pairs of underpants in 30 minutes at $10 a piece. A busload of high school and college-age girls, who had never before demonstrated, snapped them up and carried giant panty banners and flashed the crowd with their protest underpants as they completed the march.
Gorman's too likes the mix of raunch and politics. Her slogans milk the name Bush for all its sexual-slang shock value. On the day of the sales party, for instance, Gorman wore a tight white T-shirt with the words "Lick Bush, Beat Dick, Vote," slashed across her chest.
"Everybody in New York has something written across their chest," says Gorman, referring to the penchant of 20-somethings to wear the tees and tops sold by trendy clothing chains like Urban Outfitters that are stamped with expressions such as "Everyone Loves a Jewish Boy" and "Bonjour! Paris."
"I was walking around thinking what can I do to make people think about voting and make a statement? Shirts are a way of wearing your mind on your body and they do make people think."
With that inspiration, Gorman, a 20-something actress for whom this is "the most important election of our time," launched her T-shirt business, Taho Tees, in April. She and a friend, Tonya Ryan, run the teeny operation out of Gorman's studio apartment on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.
Some designers are going for the more sedate end of the political-fashion market.
Smart Women in St. Paul, Minn., for instance, sells a batch of products, from coffee mugs to temporary tattoos to T-shirts. These usually bear G-rated inscriptions. A packet of matches will bear the quip "Smart Women Light the Way." Napkins might proclaim "Smart Women Are Very Entertaining."
"There are enough partisan messages out there," says founder Julie Hellwich, whose mission is to just "get women involved and get them voting."
Hellwich has developed a special election-year stamp for her products: "Smart Women Elect to Make a Difference." When people wear their politics on their sleeves or coffee mugs or matches, she says, it's a helpful and constant reminder of political identity. "Everything we do in our lives, from dropping children off at child care to starting a small business is in some way politically connected," she says.
Clothing of the American Mind is a Los Angeles T-shirt company. It was started by set designer Caitlin Blue, who was "so uninterested" in the 2000 election. But this time, she says, she "could not not get involved." "They have tried to rewrite abortion in such a way that deems it disgusting and immoral," she says of the Bush administration. "This is devastating to some women."
"There's a group of people that have been marginalized by this administration," says Blue. "It's not only women but working people, single mothers, and it's because this administration has placed religion above everything else. Until Michael Moore any dissenting message has been so absent from the media. All we hear about is what has been endorsed by the White House."
Blue created Clothing of the American Mind as a nonprofit venture. She pens slogans and hires local screen printers to make up the shirts that are sold in bulk by American Apparel, the LA-based company that prints its slogans on American Apparel T-shirts, a U.S. company that uses only U.S.-grown cotton. She now employs two full-time staff, one a single mother and freelance writer, the other a 26-year-old editor and freelance public relations worker who are both politically involved for the first time this year.
"My feeling is that if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention," says Blue. "I would like to have a say in policy but I've been to Kerry fundraisers where people sit around and talk strategy and that's all good but it's a conversation that's happening in a bubble. The T-shirts put out there what you're political beliefs are."
Emma Pearse is a writer based in New York.
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Clothing of the American Mind:
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