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Stuck On You: The Comeback of Pins and Patches

The store was called Down Under Leather. There was a location downtown in University section, but, for a kid in his early teens, the opportunities for venturing into the gritty urban underbelly of Syracuse, NY were few and far between.

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However, there was another outpost in the Shoppingtown Mall, and getting my mom to drive me there was a much easier sell. This was back in the early 1980s (or as some of you may know it, “before I was born”) when mall culture was at its zenith, and a trip provided seemingly endless retail and social opportunities, not to mention access to Karmelkorn and an Orange Julius. But I digress.

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Down Under Leather was unmistakably a head shop, but to me (and many other Upstate New York kids who were drug info-deprived and had yet to see the Cheech & Chong films on HBO), it was a portal to a bigger, cooler world with more edge than our “Go Orangemen” daily existence could muster.

They sold pipes and papers, leather accessories—hippie sandals, cuffs, wallets with Keep On Truckin’ stamped on them—rock t-shirts, posters, cheap turquoise jewelry, patches and PINS. That’s what drew me in…all manner of buttons and pins, allowing me to show my allegiance to The Pretenders and Elvis Costello and The Specials and Bowie and Marley and yes, even The Knack.

But that’s just scratching the surface—the selection was riddled with killer graphic design and, even better, all this provided an affordable way to distinguish oneself in the hallways at school. Yes, we’re all wearing a Levi’s trucker jacket, but MINE has a Blondie pin on the chest pocket!

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I wasn’t as much of a patch guy, but my dad had a denim jacket from the ’70s that he (thanks to my mom’s needle and thread) had covered with the likes of the ecology flag and one that reminded, “Toilet paper…it’s a rip off.” (Of course, he doesn’t have the jacket anymore because I never asked him to keep it and God hates me.)

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Tasty Waves, Tastier Candidate

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The Flea Market Fave, I Like Ike Button

In fashion, as Heidi Klum reminds us, one day you’re in and the next day, you’re out. It wasn’t long before my button collection said auf weidersehen before disappearing to the dustbin of time (with my dad’s jacket). These buttons and patches became just another commodification of alternative style, savvy marketers of the early ’80s making the most of the styling-for-dollars opportunities that arose from gritty punk rock’s evolution to the much more mall friendly “new wave.” (Valley Girl, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, etc.)

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Like so many of the things we write about here, pins and embroidered patches have their origins in the military, originally used to signify rank and outfit and such, and the political campaign button remains as vital as it was when liking Ike was all the rage.

It seems only fitting then, that the counterculture of the 1960s would use their own decorations against the establishment, popularizing pins and patches that suggested we give peace a chance, make love, not war, and in the years to come, flaunt indoctrination into the KISS Army. The popularity of pins and patches has ebbed and flowed over the decades, and one need only look online, at Hot Topic or in a new-fangled head shop (or are they called dispensaries these days? Asking for a friend…) to see that pins and patches are back, and with a vengeance.

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The patch universe seems to be drawing on the same pop culture tropes as times gone by—music old and new, rebel themes and images, campy humor—but it’s the pins that have made the great leap forward. Instead of the round (usually) one inch pin back buttons that populated my jacket 30 years ago, today’s makers have embraced the enamel “lapel pin” design that we normally associate with politicians, businessmen, American flags and corporate logos.

There’s no conclusive evidence as to why this is, but I believe that in our post-Etsy world, one with a resurgence in capital C Crafts, makers were dissatisfied with the tried and true button making “technology” and were eager to explore the post-modern possibilities of a generation of creatives who grew up with Photoshop instead of an Etch-a-Sketch. And I must say, they’re killing it.

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Enamel Baby Avocado Pin from Etsy’s Pink Yellow MX

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San Francisco City Pin from Levis

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The Staten Island Ferry from Pin Trill

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Kettle Pin from The Mayven

By far, the best destination to explore the best of what’s out there is Etsy. As with much millennial output, there’s a lot of irony and twee preciousness about some of the designs, but the sheer volume, creativity and quality of the options out there—in regards to both pins and patches—makes it well worth the effort to log on and browse around (though today a pin will cost you about $12, where back in my day that much would have snagged you a chestful).

Plus, the need to personalize one’s own appearance has never been more important. With so many of our friends and their friends and their friends’ dads jumping on the premium denim bandwagon, endless Filson bags slung over the shoulders of those super late to the party, the style that once set you apart runs the risk of making you fade into the background. (There have been times at brunch when it feels like I’m attending a meeting of the Selvedge, Chambray and Pomade Appreciation Society.)

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A gift I received years ago from Ian Barry of Falcon Motorcycles

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Mementos from my swimming education at Hazleton, P.A.’s YMCA

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From my own collection: The Blues Brothers, an original Have a Nice Day, Obama ’08, and Yes I Can eat a whole pint of Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch

I fear that a man such as myself, on the brink of turning 30 for the 49th time, may be too old to pin and sew my way into this new trend, so I’m digging through my tchotchkes of the past and dusting off a few oldies-but-goodies that may make their way onto today’s denim jacket. Sure, you may have one just like it, but are Jake and Elwood guarding your pocket?