Politics fits this garment to a 'T'

Increasingly, clothes make demands.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

As the battle over new immigration laws continues to bubble, Washington is swamped with activists. As Margaret Fallon fights to ensure her voice is heard, she has a secret weapon: T-shirts.

Surrounded by hundreds of Irish-Americans and immigrants, last month Ms. Fallon lobbied for the estimated 40,000 undocumented Irish in the United States. With each person wearing an identical "Legalize the Irish" shirt, the crowd flooded onto the National Mall as a sea of white cotton.

"We're here to be united and show one message," she said. "People can look at us and ask, 'What's going on?' But when they see our T-shirts and just how many people are wearing them, they'll know and hopefully start to ask some questions about immigration."

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The Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform says it handed out 3,000 shirts that day, but that is just an ink drop compared with the ocean of political T-shirts printed each year. From campaign boons to political lampoons, more and more Americans are wearing their political hearts on their short sleeves.

"[Political T-shirts] are absolutely catching on," says Pia Catton, fashion editor for the New York Sun. "It's really an interesting movement to watch.... It's totally democratic and really kind of fun."

With slogans ranging from "If you can't read this, you don't belong in this country!" to "Prosecute Criminals, Not Harvesters," CafePress.com has distinguished itself as a one-stop shop for buyers of virtually every political view. With a staggering 22 million products - including scores on the immigration debate - this online retailer offers buyers and designers "print on demand" merchandise on everything from cats to cooking to campaigns.

Anyone with a computer can create a design and upload it to CafePress; the site will put it on its digital shelves. Nothing is printed until someone orders the shirt, so designers can make a statement without worrying about inventory or brand failure.

With creativity - not cost - as the driving force of his business, satirist John Wooden says he can fund his political spoof site WhiteHouse.org by posting two or three new T-shirts a month. And with the speed of the Internet, he adds, he can post T-shirt designs that keep up with news reports.

When Vice President Dick Cheney's accidental gunshot echoed though the news in February, CafePress clients posted more than 20 satirical designs within 36 hours of the news breaking. That number is now in the hundreds.

"Political items are amazingly good sellers," says CafePress spokesman Marc Cowlin. Politics is the second-best-selling shirt genre, behind general humor. But "during an election season," he adds, "political items are easily our top seller."

Wearing her favorite slogan ("Think fashion makes a statement? Try voting"), high school junior Pamela Weingarden of Bedford, N.Y., says she loves political Ts because they allow her to speak out without even opening her mouth.

"The main reason that I wear political T-shirts is that it is basically the only action that I can take now, as a minor and not able to actually vote on my own," Pamela says. "A good T-shirt can get people involved and interested, and the rest can follow."

Because designs move with the news, waiting for the next great design never takes very long. T-shirt nuts can pick up piles of shirts cheering or jeering Dubai, Hamas, Danish cartoons, Google in China, the State of the Union, and nearly every imaginable presidential candidate - even the improbable "Mel Gibson for President."

"If the 2008 [presidential] election were based off T-shirt sales," Cowlin says, "Hillary [Clinton] would win by a landslide."

The New York senator has her name or face on 40 percent of the candidate T-shirts CafePress sells. California "governator" Arnold Schwarzenegger scores in the teens, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims about 11 percent of the candidate shirts sold.

While the numbers reflect more polarization than popularity. Clinton spokeswoman Ann Lewis says she is seeing the power of T-shirts.

"I am struck by how much more personal and long-lasting a T-shirt is," Ms. Lewis says. "It is not imaginable to me that people would be wearing campaign buttons one, two, or even three years ahead of a campaign. But people were buying Hillary T-shirts since 2004 or 2005."

With Republicans controlling both Congress and the White House, Andrew Laidlaw, a professional silk screener and owner of the conservative clothing line Authentic GOP, admits business has been a little slow recently.

"I don't know what to say. Conservatives dominate talk radio," he says. "I guess liberals have T-shirts."

But Mr. Laidlaw says that didn't stop him from selling 40,000 copies of his "10 out of 10 terrorists agree: Anybody but Bush" T-shirt.

Laidlaw's formula for a successful shirt is simple: "People want the very big, bold, in-your-face shirts," he says. "Everyone has their opinions and they want them to be heard."

But as people use clothing as canvas, political shirts are becoming more problematic. In January, a top Massachusetts judge banned the contentious "Stop Snitchin" clothing line from all state courtrooms, claiming the message intimidates witnesses and creates a culture of silence.

Capitol police arrested activist Cindy Sheehan for disrupting this year's State of the Union when she removed her jacket, revealing a shirt reading "2,245 Dead. How Many More?" Moments later, Beverly Young, wife of Florida Rep. Bill Young (R), was thrown out for her "Support the Troops" shirt.

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