What is a meme? If you’re a nerd and you like Richard Dawkins — who, you’ll eventually note to someone who isn’t interested, “coined the term” — you might say a meme is a unit of cultural transmission that moves through a population, much like a gene. If you’ve been online too long, though, you might find the definition more flexible. Remember Ken Bone? (If you’re older, remember Kilroy?) The word “meme” has been diluted enough that it can now reasonably be applied to anything. Even your too-trendy shoes.
According to a cursory examination I did of a few “male fashion” subreddits, people are indeed referring to physical items of clothing as memes. (Not to be confused with Meme Clothing-qua-Meme Clothing, or même. clothing.) An abbreviated list of items that qualify as “memes,” ranked in no particular order:
Adidas Stan “Meme” Smiths, which you’ve certainly seen on any dude who might be described as well-dressed:
Clarks desert boots, which became a thing because they’re the easiest way to surgically upgrade your style:
And the Canada Goose parka, favored by Swiss Alps-frequenting ski bunnies:
You could also add the classic wheat Timbs to the list, along with LL Bean’s duck boots and any German Army Trainer-style sneaker. (“Meet the new meme shoe / same as the old meme shoe,” as one deleted account had it.) It’s a tautology, but memes are popular objects, which explains why objects can become memes when they’re popular. When there’s a critical consensus that an item of clothing is Good, it crosses the line into “memedom.” That’s different from online memes, which don’t have to be good to be everywhere. (And, it should be said, the items of clothing that directly reference online memes are Bad and should not be purchased at all. Internet humor can’t save you.)
The funniest thing about all this isn’t that most of the memewear is footwear, although that’s probably because shoes are easier to buy than any other piece of clothing; it’s that there doesn’t seem to be a female equivalent whatsoever. I mean, seriously, look at this! It does, however, make sense when you think about it: “straight, cis American men don’t dress well” is a meme in and of itself. Even men who are regarded as fashion icons — looking at you, Steve — have cultivated an aesthetic sensibility that’s less fashion than function.
For women’s fashion — and women’s fashion communities — there seems to be a stronger emphasis on developing a look, a personal style that isn’t tied to a few specific items. There’s also a different kind of policing that happens in women’s fashion; the concept of memewear wouldn’t translate well because it would read as basic, as something worth mocking. For men, meme clothing is an in-joke — it’s loving. And anyway, wasn’t it men who gave us Crocs and cargo shorts?
Wearing clothing that’s become a meme is valuable precisely because it means that men who are even moderately online can figure out something to wear that isn’t actively offensive to look at. That’s a W in my book.