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How do you wear your politics on your sleeve if you won't be caught dead in a T-shirt and can't risk piercing a vintage velvet coat with a metal pinback? I'd no sooner don a baseball cap than a burqa. I once draped around myself, sari-style, a rainbow-striped banner that proclaimed, "We the people say NO to the Bush agenda," but although the sentiment resonated, the outfit did not.
Sadly, when candidates call for change, they aren't talking about your wardrobe: Those three hideous horsemen of campaign-themed dressing—the T-shirt, the metal button, and the cap—continue to dominate the politico-sartorial landscape.
Then again, you wouldn't expect anything cutting-edge from JohnMcCain.com, where the online store offers tees as dull as the candidate's speeches and bright green St. Patrick's Day McCain mugs to cling to while vomiting outside McSorley's. Prospects improve marginally at BarackObama.com. The mildly witty "Got Hope?" tee and a spaghetti-strapped "Women for Obama" tank (not described by its real name: a "wife-beater") are joined by an item that is actually vaguely fashionable: a bangle reading "Hope" that is reminiscent of those Lance Armstrong bracelets everyone liked so much a few seasons back.
Over at HillaryClinton.com, the merch is perfectly pitched for her supposedly solid demographic: women of a certain age who might consider wearing a sterling-silver "H" bauble for $25 or a crystal Hillary brooch for $15. A pin that reproduces Clinton's signature in brass costs a whopping $100 and was designed by someone the site describes as "the prominent Washington, D.C., jewelry designer Ann Hand."
Further investigation reveals that Hand, who has two stores in the Beltway area, holds no particular brief for Hill: She also offers silver-plated Swarovski crystal presidential-candidate pins with the names of all the major contenders at $45 per. Hand tells me that at one time she had a raft of other crystal brooches—Huckabees and Edwardses and Bidens—but now, like the rest of the electorate, she's down to three.
Here's what's so much fun about Hand: She keeps track of how many pins have been sold thus far and posts the tally in her shop windows. On the day I call her, the numbers are 187 for Clinton, 202 for McCain, and an impressive 535 for Obama. (Romney was doing well, garnering 200 or so in sales before he and his pins dropped out.) "We've never done this for the primaries before," Hand tells me. "Normally we don't start with our pins until the general election, but this year is different." Then she adds some good news for Obama: "It's amazing how close we come to tracking the national election results."
If a Georgetown jeweler offers tasteful gold-tone lapel pins for tasteful ladies, Obama's supporters, as you might suspect, suggest somewhat wackier stuff. I turn my gaze leftward to something, or someone, called Obey, a/k/a Shepard Fairey, an artist and skateboarder who is responsible for the "Andre the Giant has a posse" graffiti, which Fairey describes as "a street-art project and an experiment in phenomenology," whatever that means. (How obvious is it that I don't know what I'm talking about?) Anyway, this Fairey/Obey has designed a highly collectible Obama poster and tee depicting the senator in a Mao-like pose with the slogan "Hope." An alternative samizdat version on eBay offers the shirt with the word "Dope" instead, and the following explanation from its creator, lest a potential buyer thinks this impugns the candidate's intelligence: "Dope is slang for excellent, phat, cool . . . I think Obama is dope, so I made this shirt."
(In an attempt to remain fair and balanced, it should be noted that Marc Jacobs, who a lot of people think is very cool, has reissued a tee he made for Hillary when she was a Senate candidate.)
The truth is, once you veer away from the candidate-approved goods, there's a wild world out there. At the cleverly named WhiteHouse.org, you can order a shirt that says "George W. Bush is a lying sack of shit," and I am ashamed to admit that I chuckled a few times when I discovered ShopMetroSpy.com, an ultra-right-wing site that states: "Over the next hundred years . . . things may get warmer and things may get cooler. Either way, we don't care. During the next Ice Age we expect to sell more sweatshirts than T-shirts and more beanies than baseball caps. . . . We use all manner of canned aerosols to clean and disinfect after a liberal leaves our office."
Unfortunately, mirth-squelching homophobia and racism rear their heads all too frequently on the site. Still, I want to find out who designed some of MetroSpy's more obnoxious tees, so I phone up the company's owner, Dan Jordan, and wouldn't you know it, he couldn't be lovelier. Who thought up the tee featuring a guy in a head wrap leading a donkey with the legend: "The vote is in! Nine of 10 terrorists agree: A Democratic Congress is good for Jihad"? Who's responsible for the baseball cap with a pic of a pachyderm that reads "Hung like a Republican"?
"I design all the stuff myself. I've got people to pack it up, but I design it," Jordan tells me, adding that occasionally he bows to popular demand, like the "Border Patrol" caps he made in response to requests that were purportedly pouring in. What's his favorite shirt on the site right now? He pauses for a long moment, then says, "I like the one that says: 'Who is scarier? Osama, Obama, or Chelsea's mama?' "