Skip to content

Get your Obama T-shirt here while they're still hot!

obama_t-shirts.jpg

Election season has passed; Obama gear has not. (Photo by Edmund DeMarche/CNS)

Aaron Harding’s favorite shirt is a simple black T-shirt that makes Barack Obama look like a rock star.

Festooned with red and blue rhinestones, Obama looks outward with interest, concern and empathy all rolled into one furrowed brow. The word “Hope” is written in a bold font below the iconic image.

Harding, 48, a street vendor in Brooklyn, N.Y., hopes that Obama will do well, in part because he also hopes Obama’s image will sell more pins, shirts, bobblehead dolls and calendars.

“He’s like a superstar,” says Harding. “People wear this stuff like a badge of honor.”

Obama has been elected and sworn in, has put up a swing set and planted a garden on the White House lawn, yet people are still wearing and buying election paraphernalia.

A “Hope” pin there. A shirt that reads, “Yes We Did,” there. Five months after the election, people are still campaigning for Obama.

“It’s an identity marker,” says Angela A. Aidala, a sociology professor from Columbia University. “It’s the same thing as wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt or Yankees cap.”

Aidala, who volunteered for the Obama campaign in Ohio, says wearing political buttons offers a sign of solidarity.

A lot of people apparently bought their parts from Harding at his two-table superstore stationed near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. On Election Day, Harding says, he sold 5,000 Obama pins and hundreds of T-shirts. That topped off an election season in which, he says, he sold anywhere from 500 to 1,000 Obama pins a day, at $5 a pop. Even so, he resists taking that sun-drenched vacation because, he says, business can fluctuate.

“A lot of tourists would stop by and take like 10 pins,” says Harding, who has been a street vendor for 15 years. “I never saw anything like it.”

This trend of solidarity is not new, even if the feeling has taken longer to wear off. In the ’60s, people who opposed the Vietnam War displayed their consternation by wearing peace signs on clothing, jewelry or pins. While President George W. Bush was in office, large cities saw a spike in anti-Bush pins and bumper stickers, illustrating people’s disgust over the war in Iraq.

The history of political buttons is rich. Pins arrived on the scene in 1789, when supporters of George Washington had brass buttons reading, “G.W. Long Live the President,” sewed onto their clothing. But it wasn’t until 1860, with Abraham Lincoln and his opponents that campaign buttons were used on a large scale. But they usually disappear soon after an election. Not this time.

This year the Rev. Melony McGant, from Harlem, spent thousands on pins, T-shirts, calendars and pens, all supporting Obama.

“I really got into it,” she says.

McGant, 54, says she felt compelled to support Obama any way she could and was delighted when he won.

“I brought my mother down to Washington for the inauguration,” says McGant. “And we even bought ‘Inauguration’ pins down there.”

However, this support has been criticized by some radio commentators, who say the country is turning Obama into an icon. Michael Savage, a right-wing radio host, says the media are helping add to Obamamania.

“Obama has induced mass hysteria with help from the media and Hollywood,” said Savage on his show the day after Obama’s inauguration. It’s dangerous when a country’s populace becomes enamored of elected officials, he said.

Henry Brady, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, says individuals still wearing Obama pins are expressing a sign of support and unity, and he does not see any danger in that.

But he did caution about harboring unrealistic goals.

“He’s following a president who was a fundamental failure in most people’s eyes,” Brady says. “But most people want him to accomplish a very ambitious agenda.”

The Obama boom also was a boon to businesses that design and print T-shirts. Individual supporters and entrepreneurs, both legal and illegal, approached silk-screening shops around New York during the campaign.

“I’ve never dealt with printing campaign tees,” says Ed Abrevaya, the owner of Image Makers, a store on the Upper West Side that printed “a few hundred” during the election.

Stella Tang, the owner of Adds Co., another store that had never printed political tees, says she printed about 50 shirts endorsing Obama this year.

“We haven’t heard from people lately,” she says. “But it did improve business for a while during a slow economy.”

A Stitch Above, in Brooklyn, printed 6,000 to 8,000 T-shirts endorsing Obama, according to its owner, Mark, who did not want his last name printed. He says requests for Obama shirts declined drastically in the weeks following the election.

Harding also admits that sales of Obama merchandise are slowing. Like the auto industry, Harding has been forced to change his business model. He cut the cost of pins in half, from $5 to $2.50, and buys T-shirts that focus more on Michelle Obama, who is growing in popularity.

“You need to change with the times,” he says. “Obama sells, but Michelle is heating up.”

E-mail: ejd2122@columbia.edu