Memewear has its roots in fandom, though it’s a limited precedent. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol played with the sheer ubiquity of pop-culture icons, retooling famous faces in lavender and yellow and silk-screening them on canvas. His waggish reconfigurations laid the groundwork for the self-diminishing T-shirts of the 1980s, with their stoned borrowings from television catchphrases and kitschy advertisements (“Where’s the beef?”) that lost their tang by the early 1990s.
At its most pure, fandom is an expression of mass enthusiasm. But memewear is about mass awareness, a completely democratic form of snobbery. Just as an NPR tote can occasionally be less about showing support for “All Things Considered” than for the idea of news literacy, memewear establishes an in-group of the well-informed. It is a nod made flesh.
Fashion’s value is pinned to its materials. So what is memewear worth? If rare or labor-intensive materials like gold or silk are valuable and common ones like rayon and nylon are less so, what to make of a shirt spun of ubiquity? How do you appraise a dress made not of cotton but of pure recognition? You may as well try to market the air. A lolcat sweater is not meant for passing on, having none of the staying power my sister craved. Its magic lies in its complete disposability. It’s a souvenir from time spent in an invisible world: I spent hours roaming the nether regions of Tumblr and all I got was this lousy hat.
Unlike tchotchkes, collectibles and kitsch, memewear is not memorabilia: It accrues no value. Memewear, like a new car, starts leaking value as soon as it’s off the lot. It is inherently ephemeral, but it is, crucially, less ephemeral than the images it pays tribute to. A “Covfefe” tee (and inevitably, a “Nevertheless, She Covfefed” tee) makes the internet real, gives it substance and shape. It lets our thoughts wear clothes. In blending the material world with the web, memewear proposes a compromise between what’s stable and what’s fluid. Fashion is written text, laid down in lace and aglets. The internet — your Twitter feed, your Amazon-recommended purchases, the Wikipedia page on Nicole Kidman’s musical career — is a conversation, vanishing even as we have it. Memewear is an oral-history project, recording our community’s customs before they can disappear.
Jamie Fisher, “Memewear”, The New York Times Magazine (20 August 2017), 23.