Design by Arunika Shee

I have a lot of merch.

My room is full of Funko Pop! figures, my laptop is covered in stickers sporting everything from the “Kim Possible” logo to “Hamilton” quotes and my closet is stuffed with superhero T-shirts and Taylor Swift sweatshirts.

My family members always shake their heads in exasperation when they see me buy yet another Avengers T-shirt or Disney sticker; they don’t understand why I would “waste my money” on something so materialistic and fleeting — after all, the clothes only last so long, the stickers wear away and what am I going to do with all those Pop figures when I’m a grown-up?

But there’s a sense of connection, of belonging, in buying into this idea of merch. 

My sister and I have matching Big Time Rush T-shirts from a concert last July. My friends and I have stickers that showcase our inside jokes and common interests (ask me about my Swiftie Support Group sticker, and I’ll tell you about it). We use these things — these material objects — to not only show but share what we love. A few weeks ago, I walked into the Barnes & Noble by my house in a “Ms. Marvel” sweatshirt, and three separate people came up to me and started conversations about the show, commenting on how much they loved Kamala (Iman Vellani, debut) and on their excitement at the prospect of seeing her in further Marvel projects. As I write this piece, I’m wearing a “Friends” shirt that someone complimented as I rushed between classes in the Ross School of Business, tossing a “love your shirt” at me as I passed the Starbucks kiosk. It might sound cheesy or hyperbolic, but even something as simple as the clothes you’re wearing can make you feel like you’re a part of something bigger.

Nothing exemplifies this better than my cardigan.

If you know me, you know that I’m a really big Taylor Swift fan. When her eighth studio album folklore came out in July 2020, my sister ordered me a “cardigancardigan as an early birthday gift.

I’ll be honest — I rarely wear it.

I break the cozy, cream-colored cardigan out on special occasions. In other words, you’ll only catch me wearing it on the day Taylor Swift drops a new album. 

Sometimes the cardigan feels too important to wear. It’s not the same as a random threadbare T-shirt boasting the words “I love you three thousand” or an old sweatshirt with Lego Batman’s face on it. I can buy those anywhere, any time. One of my Avengers T-shirts was made from an old black shirt and iron-on paper. I can’t replicate the cardigan that easily; it’s not replaceable in the same way. I place a strange reverence on this article of clothing because of its connection to Swift. Wearing it brings me back to that moment of hearing “cardigan” for the first time, watching the music video and seeing Taylor herself wear the very same article of clothing that I am. She’s my favorite artist, so it increases the connection that I already feel to her. When I do wear it, it feels more special than other merchandise.

Even though I rarely wear my cardigan, preferring to keep it folded neatly in my closet or under my bed, having it makes me feel a connection with people — even strangers walking the streets of Ann Arbor — who are wearing their own cardigans.

I’ll catch their eyes, smile at them and compliment their sweaters, and a moment of recognition, understanding, passes between us. 

Maybe that sounds stupid. Or maybe it sounds unimportant, petty and ridiculous. After all, people have told me that my “fangirl” tendencies are juvenile and that I need to “get over” being a Swiftie.

But who cares what they think?

The point of walking around with your heart on your sleeve, with your fandoms and interests emblazoned on the clothes you wear, is that it means something to you — and maybe it provides a little conversation starter with people you meet. Proudly displaying my merch has allowed me to bond with students walking around campus, chat with the barista at Starbucks and even initiate a conversation with the professor I was scared to talk to. 

My sister once said that owning merch — shirts, sweatshirts, stickers, hats, anything — is a kind of litmus test. If people understand the references, they’re the people you could be friends with because you have a shared interest. There’s something that exists between you that might seem small or unimportant but offers the opportunity to create and maintain meaningful connections. I have friendships that began because I saw someone wearing a Taylor Swift T-shirt, holding a book I loved or displaying a sticker of one of my favorite TV shows; these friendships may have started with a small, shared interest, but they became much more.

I think my sister is right (and I don’t say that often). 

By wearing a T-shirt — or a cardigan — that professes my love for a franchise, book series or musical artist, I enter into a larger community. It gives me the possibility of a shared, secret smile between myself and the girl at the Undergraduate Library who’s wearing a very familiar red scarf.

Managing Arts Editor Sabriya Imami can be reached at simami@umich.edu.