Opinion

First, it was the post-vaccination selfies and those coveted “I’m COVID-19 Vaccinated” stickers.

First, it was the post-vaccination selfies and those coveted "I’m COVID-19 Vaccinated" stickers.

Now, the double-dosed are taking it a step further and wearing their vaccination status emblazoned across their chests. It’s the season of the vaccine slogan tee.

Online craft retailer Etsy is full of eye-catching pro-vaccination merch, such as this ‘Pfizer alumni’ T-shirt. (DoozyDoodle / Etsy)

Online craft retailer Etsy is full of eye-catching pro-vaccination merch, such as this ‘Pfizer alumni’ T-shirt. (DoozyDoodle / Etsy)

Online retailer Etsy is awash with them. Some T-shirts are straightforward: the word "vaccinated" in a pleasing font, for example. Others are more eye-catching: "Vaccines cause adults." You can rep Team Moderna or Team Pfizer or simply Team Vaccine. There are Dolly Parton tees, with the word "vaccine" in place of her song title "Jolene," a nod to the country legend’s $1 million donation to help fund the Moderna vaccine. There are cheekier ones, too: "Fully vaccinated, still not a hugger" and "Vaccinated AF."

This trend extends to all manner of merch, from non-medical masks to mugs. But the humble T-shirt has long been a reliable canvas for expression and a medium for a message, thanks to its relative affordability, wearability and ubiquity.

T-shirts can serve as something of a cultural shorthand, an easy way to communicate something fundamental about yourself: "I am from this city; I like this TV show; I saw this band." (Although, woe to the woman in a band T-shirt. Hope you enjoy random discography quizzes!)

Local maker @kodiakmilly sells vaccination-themed goods such as masks, mugs and pins. (Instagram)

Local maker @kodiakmilly sells vaccination-themed goods such as masks, mugs and pins. (Instagram)

Statement T-shirts can also communicate one’s political and social beliefs. The year 2017, which was bookended by the inauguration of U.S. president Donald Trump and the Women’s March on Washington in January and the reignition of the #MeToo movement in the fall of that year, saw an influx of feminist slogan T-shirts — "This Is What a Feminist Looks Like," "The Future Is Female," "Nevertheless, She Persisted."

T-shirts can be symbols of solidarity (the orange T-shirts that represent the childhoods stolen by Canada’s residential school system, for example) and of resistance and protest (Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate). And they can capture the zeitgeist, too; OK, Boomer, that Generation Z cri de coeur, was a hugely popular T-shirt design in 2019.

And now, T-shirts are a way to say, "I am vaccinated."

@kodiakmilly sells vaccination-themed goods such as masks, mugs and pins. (Instagram)

@kodiakmilly sells vaccination-themed goods such as masks, mugs and pins. (Instagram)

As tools of change, T-shirts have their limitations, of course. The co-opting and commodification of social movements by brands is a real concern, and the work can’t begin and end with a T-shirt. But as billboards for public health and harm reduction in the context of vaccination, T-shirts seem a comfortable fit. Quite literally wearing your vaccination status doesn’t just tell people you’re vaccinated; it also says you believe in community care, that you value science, that you did your part.

Vaccine T-shirts can raise awareness about and normalize vaccination — and, at a time when policy makers and companies alike are stressing over how to navigate the ethics of vaccine passports and status disclosures, vaccine T-shirts are largely doing some of that work for them.

T-shirts also have a long history as souvenirs — see: the "…And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt" trope — which is what this current crop of tops feels like: keepsakes from the weirdest time that will eventually get shoved into a drawer with all the COVID-19 T-shirts that came immediately before them.

Indeed, one of the first submissions the Manitoba Museum got in response to its call for pandemic artifacts was a Social Distance Club sweatshirt. It’s no accident that many of these pandemic-related shirts make reference to teams and clubs; they appeal to our need, as social creatures, to bond and belong.

That "Vaxxed and relaxed" T-shirt will feel like a relic someday, something to show the grandkids. The vaccine itself, of course, is what will allow you to have the chance to do that.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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