August 23rd was a big day for the small community of Elkview, West Virginia. A new Kroger grocery store was rebuilt after being destroyed in a one in a thousand year flood that devastated the whole state on June 23, 2016. Those visiting the store were greeted with the usual decor seen in a supermarket, including check-out lines, rows of shopping carts, and signs advertising the latest sales. What was unusual was a set of t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Never Forget” with the date June 23, 2016. These t-shirts were not commemorating the newly built store, rather the very flood that destroyed the building where the shirts were being sold. They represent a larger, national trend that has been occurring during a rise in gun crime and natural disasters within recent years in the United States. The trend is known as commemorative apparel; clothing that is made specifically to memorialize tragic events, whether through its design and/or charitable contribution.
Commemorative apparel is the new way we mourn and grieve publically through dress. Honoring the deceased through clothing has been historically shown through a set of distinct rules, as seen in Victorian mourning clothing and all-black attire that we wear at funerals in the United States. However, as Western society embraces a more casual approach to what we wear, the look and feeling of how we memorialize others has also changed. Wearing commemorative apparel may help the wearer gain a sense of peace or donate to a meaningful cause, but it may also rehash feelings of hurt and pain for others.
Common places that sell commemorative clothing are museum gift shops. After the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum gift shop, the selling of commercial goods on the tragic site crossed a line for relatives of those who perished. One parent said to The Washington Post, “They’re down there selling bracelets; they’re making money off my dead son.” Abby Phillip explains in her 2014 article, “Families infuriated by ‘crass commercialism’ of 9/11 Museum gift shop,” that the selling of commemorative goods and apparel isn’t uncommon. For example, the Pacific Historic Parks museum gift shop sells a number of t-shirts and goods that commemorate the 1941 Pearl Harbor Attacks. The Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee only sells apparel featuring the name of the ill-fated ship in the design. It appears that the appropriateness of commemorative clothing falls to the eye of the beholder.
Before the popularity of gift shop wares in the US and Europe, the connection between death and clothing was shown through a set of formal social codes during the Victorian era. From 1861 to her death in 1901, Queen Victoria participated in the tradition of mourning to honor the death of her husband Prince Albert. She wore shades of black, purple, and greys with veils and caps. The public replicated their Queen out of custom and fashion by wearing the various shades of mourning with all of the accoutrements. Versions of this practice became common in many Euromodern cultures
Victorians also wore jewelry that was based on the concept of death and remembrance. The tradition dates to the 16th century and incorporated skull and bone designs to remind the wearer of their own mortality. The trend changed during the Victorian era and was influenced by the ostentatious design aesthetic of the time. Popular choices included rings, necklaces, and brooches that displayed intricate designs or inlaid images commemorating a death. A fashionable trend within this trend was the incorporation of hair of a lost loved one. Locks of hair were weaved or braided into the construction of the jewelry, which added texture and grandeur.
In more recent times, honoring the dead has developed into the trend of airbrush t-shirts. These items are characterized by large cursive writing and images honoring the deceased. Commemorative airbrushed t-shirts began during the late 1970s as an extension of the American street graffiti scene. This concept is said to have originated from a mourning tradition in West African and Caribbean communities where mourners created and wore head scarves with the dead’s likeness incorporated into the design. The trend continues today and is growing in popularity in communities that experience higher rates of violence and commercial hip-hop culture. Even celebrities have embraced the style; Kanye West created and sold a t-shirt with airbrush images of his mother, Donda West on the front and his father-in-law, Robert Kardashian on the back. Drake included a photograph of himself on Instagram wearing a t-shirt with an airbrushed image of the singer Selena Quintanilla on the front.
These t-shirts are often created by local businesses in the community for both funerals and death anniversaries, which extends the visibility of the deceased. The wearing of these t-shirts has become a form of healing by honoring the lives of people gone too soon or those who were pillars of the community. However, the constant presence of images of the deceased can act as a reminder of the increased threat of violence and barriers to social mobility among people of color in low income neighborhoods. “In a way, making R.I.P. shirts puts you in touch with your own mortality,” 26-year-old shirtmaker Sama Banya told SFGate. “Almost every time, I’m pressing the iron on a face that is my age or younger.”
Alongside the growing popularity of airbrush designs, sales of commemorative screen printed clothing is increasing. Unlike airbrush t-shirts, which are often created for small groups or organizations, screen printed versions are usually sold to mass audiences as charitable donations. Examples include a UFC sponsored line of men’s and women’s pieces with a raised fist or heart emblem and the words “Vegas Strong” written across the chest. The $24.99 sale is promised to go to the families affected by the 2017 Las Vegas shootings. The 2012 tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut inspired the creation of a charity t-shirt, which reads, “Giving It All I Got” in a green cursive font with a matching tree emblem. The t-shirts are sold by the nonprofit organization Sandy Hook Promise, which seeks to prevent gun violence. Even HGTV stars Joanna and Chip Gaines have created a t-shirt that funds disaster relief for Hurricane Harvey. Sold through their famed Magnolia Market, the dusty blue t-shirt features the words, “Texas Forever” in a minimalist font that mirrors their Southern meets Shabby Chic aesthetic.
Despite the charitable mindfulness of screen printed commemorative t-shirts, they are not always welcomed. In 2016, a group of Cleveland firefighters was denied the option to wear a polo that honored the lives lost in the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks by their chief for a related event. Although the denial was based on dress code instead of personal belief, the controversy inspired numerous news stories that reported the disagreement with accompanying comments questioning the patriotism of the Cleveland chief.
Mourning publically through commemorative apparel can range from a restrained phrase of positivity to a straightforward image of the deceased. As seen in previous examples, this offering of open bereavement is not accepted by all and is still a developing phenomenon with the American public. So, is commemorative apparel the new mourning dress? Not yet. However, unless the United States embraces gun control and climate change initiatives, each day will bring a new opportunity to literally wear our grief on our sleeves.