Our Sad Souvenirs of The Pandemic
The Atlantic|April 2021
Americans can’t go anywhere, but we’re still buying the T-shirt.
By Amanda Mull

Last May, when Connor Hitchcock decided to start a fundraiser for some out-of-work friends, he had modest expectations. Hitchcock and his wife, Christa, run Homefield Apparel, which licenses old collegiate sports logos to make vintage-inspired T-shirts and sweatshirts. They wanted to help out a handful of writers who had recently been furloughed from Vox Media’s college- football website, Banner Society. The couple drew up some designs based on inside jokes from the site’s two podcasts. Hitchcock didn’t tell the writers what he was up to. “I thought maybe we could raise $2,000 and help them buy some groceries,” he told me.

The response was enormous. In a short presale, Homefield sold thousands of T-shirts that would make sense only to devoted listeners. People wrote in asking to donate money on top of the price of the shirts; several pledged more than $1,000. In a few days, Homefield had raised $44,000. “It pointed to people’s own personal generosity, but also the motivations of people when they feel connected to others,” Hitchcock said. “Where you spend your money is, I think, ultimately the biggest sense of agency a lot of people have.”

I am a fan of Banner Society and its podcasts (I was a guest on one of them several years ago). I ordered one of each T-shirt design. Over the next six months, I kept buying tops adorned with niche jokes from podcasts, the names of local restaurants and concert venues, or logos from indie clothing brands. Also: tote bags, stickers, coffee mugs, and, yes, one wine key. Some of these items were explicitly marketed as fundraisers for businesses whose cash flow had been dented by the pandemic. Other purchases just struck me as a way to throw extra business to people who could probably use it.

In July, I ordered a $38 T-shirt emblazoned with the nonsense word Chattahucci— an homage to the 1992 song “Chattahoochee,” by Alan Jackson, and its deranged music video, in which the singer belts out his ode to the river that bisects metro Atlanta while water-skiing in jeans like an absolute legend. The name of the river was misspelled and printed in the style of Gucci’s logo, which doesn’t really have anything to do with the song, or the river. The shirt made me laugh—I was obsessed with the song as a kid growing up in Atlanta—and buying it felt like a good deed. I knew that its designer, the Texas-based indie music and apparel company Vinyl Ranch, could no longer stage the parties and performances that had been a big part of its business.

The Banner Society and chattahucci T-shirt purchases were out of character for me, as I don’t typically wear T-shirts. (Every time a new one arrived, I folded it up and tucked it away in a box under my bed.) Nor do I believe that merch alone can sustain businesses crippled by a deep economic crisis brought on by a global pandemic. But I wasn’t sure how else to help, and everywhere I looked, I noticed other people doing the same thing: posting their new tees on social media, along with information about where their followers could get one.

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