Late last month, Ink & Vector opened a pop-up shop in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood. The fandom-driven apparel company is known for its tees, tanks, hoodies and accessories that pay homage to cult-favorite shows such as Doctor Who, The Walking Dead and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Its slogan—“Where obsession meets fashion”—might call to mind the type of person who would wait outside the stage door for hours just to show Criss Angel the tattoo of his face she’d recently had emblazoned across her inner thigh. But for me, it scratches a very specific itch: the desire to incorporate my pop culture proclivities into my wardrobe; to wear my Heart on my sleeve, as it were—as long as we’re talking about the band that sang “Barracuda.”
Clothing has always been about self-expression to some extent, but prior to the swift adoption of band T-shirts in the 1960s, it was more about showing rather than telling. Now, you quite literally cannot swing that nostalgic Thundercats lunchbox you scored on eBay without hitting at least two dozen people pledging their allegiances for all to see—be it an oversize logo on a pair of sunglasses or a screen print of Rihanna gracing a crop top, everyone’s outfit comes with an underlying message. Personally, I’d rather see inside jokes from zeitgeists past than the same luxury brand names or universally oversaturated faces (sorry, Che and Marilyn). The former at least gives you a glimpse below the surface, a little flash of someone’s freak flag waving in the breeze. “Fan,” after all, is derived from “fanatic,” and there’s something wonderful about the vulnerability inherent in announcing that unbridled zeal to the world.
For the record: I did not always have this view. The first fan clothing item I ever coveted was a Bartman T-shirt I got the year before I turned 10 (I know this because there are pictures of me wearing it at my 10th birthday party; apparently, it passed for cocktail attire in my fourth-grade social circle). Featuring a masked Bart Simpson with a speech bubble warning “Watch it, dude,” it was purchased in a men’s size XL. For although I was a scant 50 pounds at the time, this was 1990, when it was considered the height of fashion to look as though you were slowly melting into your voluminous vestments a la the Wicked Witch of the West. I wore the Bartman T-shirt as often as my mother’s laundry schedule and my burgeoning prepubescent musk would allow.
Then one day an older boy approached me in the schoolyard and said something nonsensical in a funny voice. When I stared back blankly, he rolled his eyes. “I bet you don’t even watch The Simpsons,” he scoffed, and walked away. After that, I couldn’t look at my beloved Bartman shirt—or myself—the same way. I was an impostor of the worst kind: a fake fan. And I’d been found out.
The thing about fandom fashion is that it invites conversation. When you wear something that references a specific TV show or movie, you are essentially declaring yourself an expert, flashing a signal to other members of your tribe, and asking them to reveal themselves to you. It’s not like carrying the latest Marc Jacobs satchel or wearing head-to-toe Lanvin; no one expects brand preference to translate to a deep knowledge of the designer. But bust out a Breaking Bad tank top and you’d better have seen all five seasons, or your fellow Heisenbergs will come for you.
I learned this the hard way, and took a nearly two-decadelong break from fan fashion after the Bartman debacle. I watched more television than almost anyone I knew, but I got it off of my chest—literally, at least.
But then I had a baby. And as I spent countless sleepless nights browsing Etsy with one hand while desperately rocking a mewling infant with the other, I found myself staring longingly at $40 screen-printed onesies depicting John Cusack holding up his boom box in Say Anything, or Bill Murray staring out with a faint smirk on his famously pockmarked mug. Why should a baby get to wear these? I thought. They don’t deserve these references. I earned them. I can quote every line from Say Anything! I know all of the original Melrose Place cast members! What does this kid know? He can’t even find a nipple without help!
That was my turning point. Older and wiser—and powerfully fueled by coffee and nostalgia—I began to curate a collection of re-appropriated cultural artifacts that would make Andy Warhol weep with jealousy. Currently in rotation: a tank spray-painted with the faces of the New Kids on the Block; a T-shirt with a life-size color print of Brenda Walsh’s mug shot from Beverly Hills, 90210; an extra-large shirt (used as pajamas) emblazoned with the disembodied head of Project Runway’s Tim Gunn and his catchphrase “Make it work!”; a cropped sweatshirt that reads “What’s Your Damage?” in a big cursive scrawl across the chest (Heathers, duh); a tank with a quote from Pretty in Pink alongside Jon Cryer wearing a bolo tie; and a V-neck displaying a young Mario Lopez and the words “Catch Ya Slater!” Yes, it’s basically like I hopped in a TARDIS and went back to 1991, save for Gunn, but that’s the thing about real fandom: You can’t choose your obsessions. You just choose whether or not to put them on in the morning.