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Finding Community in Fandom With Merch From Fictional Worlds

Jessica MacLeish

Fictional merch allows you to insert yourself into your favorite books, movies and TV shows — connecting with fellow fans in the process.

Photo: Courtesy of Nike

Merch is still enjoying its moment in the fashion spotlight and is more ubiquitous (and niche) than ever. There's music merch. Food merch. Media brand merch. College merch. Church merch. It feels like everyone and their mom is wearing some kind of "merch as fashion" these days — or, for the more advanced creative subset of the population, making it themselves. Well, I have yet another category of merch that I'm obsessed with and would like to discuss: fictional merch.

Late last year, Fashionista predicted that film merch would be a 2019 merch trend — I wouldn't mind an Annapurna baseball cap for the beach this summer — but, though adjacent in genre, that's not quite what I'm talking about when I say "fictional merch." Fictional merch is branded with a fictional logo and/or slogan (note: this is not the same thing as a character's catchphrase or quote) that comes from inside the world of your favorite TV show, movie or book. It doesn't exist in our real world as a real brand or establishment, though it is sort of crossing into real life territory as it makes its way onto our T-shirts and tote bags. How meta.

I was never much of a band T-shirt girl, with the exception of a Rolling Stones tee I wore all the time in high school — though it was procured from Urban Outfitters — and maybe a few others (Live 8 2005: came, saw, made out with a UPenn frat guy, bought the T-shirt). My friends and I went through a vintage phase in high school, too, scouring shops on St. Mark's Place for T-shirts emblazoned with a random New Jersey town's local plumber's logo. But now, as merch is having its fashion renaissance, I find myself increasingly drawn to the previously mentioned fictional merch. Because you know what I've always loved? Fictional worlds.

I've had my nose in a book since I had a nose. TV? Movies? Binge watching and rewatching? Yes, please, all of it. Fictional merch is right up my alley, and while it's always existed, it, too, seems to be getting cooler, like merch as a whole. There's a lot of it available on sites like Etsy and Café Press; Hot Topic sells a Southside Serpents (fake) leather jacket, and more. Nike just announced a capsule collaboration with "Stranger Things" that features nostalgic Hawkins High School hoodies and track pants. There are Jackson Maine and Ally T-shirts for sale with the purchase of the "A Star Is Born" digital album. The band from Elizabeth Moss's recent movie "Her Smell" has its own merch store. Yes, fictional merch is officially a thing.

Wearing any kind of merch makes a statement to the world about you and your tastes. Making that statement then allows you a moment of connection with someone who might see your Shake Shack tee and say, "I love Shake Shack, too! Let's be friends and eat burgers and fries!" (The fictional merch version of this interaction would be, for instance, Los Pollos Hermanos or Bob's Burgers gear.) Merch is inextricably related to fandom, wearing your fandom on your body and then connecting with fellow fans, even if you don't verbalize it and just bask in the brief moment of mutual appreciation with a silent smile or nod.

(Not all merch is worn with full-bodied sincerity, of course; ironically worn merch is a thing, too. Still, I'd argue that there's at least some strain of sincerity in even ironic merch-wearing. You're connecting with something there.)

The fandom component of merch-wearing reaches a different level when we're talking fictional merch. When you wear a Rose Apothecary sweatshirt, you're not just proclaiming yourself a fan of the show "Schitt's Creek," you're proclaiming yourself such a fan that you get all the show's references, such a fan that you're practically inserting yourself into the show — acting like you live in-world and are actually repping David and Patrick's general store.

After rewatching "Dirty Dancing" on cable last summer, I was consumed with finding the perfect Kellerman's tee, Kellerman's being the fictional Catskills resort where the movie takes place. What came over me? I'm not quite sure I was aware of it as I searched online, but the reaction I got when I wore it to work helped illuminate my reasons. A few people recognized the resort name from my shirt, and it's not an exaggeration to say that they freaked out when they caught the reference. One colleague gestured wildly to me about it across a conference room during an important meeting. I'm hoping for a similar reaction when I finally buy and wear this Mystic Pizza T-shirt and this "Sick Sad World" T-shirt.

A feeling that I think all merch, including fictional merch, gives the wearer, is the feeling of being in on something — be it a fashion trend or fandom. For those who have ever felt like an outsider in one way or another, the feeling of being "in," of connecting to another person in a shared fandom, of something real or fictional, is powerful. There's a flip side here, which is that perhaps the people who don't get your particular merch are therefore cast as outsiders — if you know, you know. Personally, I'm more interested in that excited, geeking out moment of connection with a fellow fan than looking down my nose at someone who isn't one. We don't all need to like the exact same pop culture. That'd just be boring.

The added bonus of fictional merch, which speaks to its difference from the regular ol' merch craze and why someone like myself, who has always lived with one foot in a fictional world at any given time, would gravitate toward it, is that it gives the wearer the chance to live within the fictional world they love so much. Do I want to live in Beverly Hills in the 90s? Well, yes, but it's not possible, so I have to settle for the small rush of dramatic 90210 adrenaline I get whenever I look at my Peach Pit After Dark keychain. In this way, fictional merch is like a form of escapism. We can escape our own world, whatever may be going on in it, and live in our fictional world of choice for a moment. When you love stories (via whatever medium they come to you) as much as I do, that's an appealing possibility. Fictional merch also tends to be less expensive (and likely less of a collectible/more available) than a lot of the high fashion/streetwear merch popping up, though that could certainly change.

As someone who makes a living by diving into these fictional worlds, writing them, editing them, and commenting on them, it's hardly a surprise that fictional merch would be my preferred merch. If I have a choice between reality and fiction, I'm going fiction 9/10 times. Wearing merch feels like a healthy, non-hallucinatory way to live with my head in the fictional clouds (though my wallet might not totally agree).

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