Merch watch: are you consuming culture as a performative act?

The Gentlewoman x Arket tee

Rachel Cusk and Zadie Smith have become, in effect, literary brands — once their names are removed from the context of a book’s cover and placed on a hat or a tote bag.” Terry Nguyen, New York Times.

The merch machine refuses to die. In fact, I would argue it’s only just getting started. The New York Times recently published this article on literary merch, explaining the relatively new popularity of #litcore caps (and totes and tees) that show allegiance to revered writers while telegraphing the wearer’s (perceived) intellectual superiority. The Guardian calls this “consuming culture as a performative act”, while comedian Dan Rosen simply calls it “liberal cringe” (ouch #guilty).

It’s also rampant in media, with mainstream and niche publications going all out on taste signallers. (Tees! Polo shirts! Watch bro Swiss army knives!) To me, this is logical while the magazine industry continues to struggle. If people aren’t buying enough of your actual style zine, then why not give them some other products to buy that advertise the name of your brand in the process? The Gentlewoman just launched a T-shirt collab with Arket, while Air Mail’s merch machine is in full flow with obligatory tote (want!) and key ring. Ditto L’Etiquette and Monocle.

For the more mainstream Vogue and Elle, it’s all about VIP membership “collectives”  and “clubs”  offering exclusive perks in exchange for higher value subscriptions, which no doubt include limited-edition merch.

It’s interesting that the merchification of culture doesn’t stop at magazines, books, bookshops and films. Mental health merch is the new interpretation of feel-good fashion, with Prozac and Zoloft tees indicative of the “memeification of mental health on the Internet”. While some are critical of what they see as trivialising health issues, others applaud Gen Z’s reclaiming of their ‘Menty Bs’ (aka mental breakdown) as a form of self-expression.

“The goal of raising awareness, decreasing stigma and contributing to a culture of shared support is a good thing,” says Dr. Shannon Bennett of the Center for Youth Mental Health at NewYork-Presbyterian. Willa Bennett (no relation), editor-in-chief of Highsnobiety is equally positive. “Nowadays, it’s more acceptable to embrace your mental health. Style is just the natural next step.”

WORDS: Disneyrollergirl / Navaz Batliwalla
IMAGE: The Gentlewoman x Arket
NOTE: Most images are digitally enhanced. Some posts use affiliate links and PR samples. Please read my privacy and cookies policy here

CLICK HERE to get Disneyrollergirl blog posts straight to your inbox once a week
CLICK HERE to buy my book, The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman
CLICK HERE to buy my beauty book, Face Values: The New Beauty Rituals and Skincare Secrets