A few weeks ago, I took my sister and her friend to the Strand, Manhattan’s mecca of used books and savvily branded accessories. Her friend Shar, staggered by her first trip to New York, was running her finger down a ‘‘Nevertheless, She Persisted’’ pencil pouch, considering it as a souvenir. If she didn’t want the sentiment on a pouch, she could have it as a tote or a T-shirt; she could even, as the Strand suggests, ‘‘keep persisting from your head to your toes!’’ with a pair of blue knee-high socks.
‘‘Eh, I wouldn’t,’’ my sister said. ‘‘It’s so new. We don’t know if it has staying power.’’
These objects are an example of ‘‘memewear’’: the tangible detritus of a very popular, very temporary joke. Consider the face of the world-weary scholar whose BBC interview on South Korean politics was interrupted by his toddler lunging into the room. Now consider that face on a softball tee. A meme is intended to be seen only through glass: thumbed past on a Facebook feed, endlessly retooled in Reddit threads, batted across Twitter like a cat’s feather toy, its own form of visual punctuation. When you first see it become physical, it feels like a hallucination, the stuff of your insomniac scrollings made manifest in the mundane world. Then comes a glorious shock of recognition, almost a thrill of the illicit: Should this be happening?
You can break memewear down into categories. There’s whimsically offensive: the Bed Intruder Halloween costume, which calls back to a man who found brief viral fame after his local news segment on a botched home invasion was set to music, consists of a wig and a do-rag in a box. There are animals on totes: lolcats requesting cheezburger or riding tacos through a cosmic backdrop, honey badgers refusing to tolerate your nonsense, the awed-looking shiba inu, known simply as the doge. (‘‘Wow,’’ one shirt reads, in the doge’s distinctive Comic Sans patois. ‘‘Very style. So shirt.’’) These are all classic memes, clever but innocent, like a smart-alecky fourth grader. Made by thousands of independent producers, distributed on Etsy and CafePress and Redbubble or mocked up by hand, memewear is for the Everyman.
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.