It seems fitting that after a US presidential election campaign defined by bizarre distractions – Rudy Giuliani’s hair dye, a press conference at the wrong Four Seasons, Mike Pence vs The Fly – Inauguration Day would generate its own internet moment.
We refer, of course, to Bernie Sanders wearing mittens.
For all the history taking place in Washington on Inauguration Day, it is the image of a rugged up Sanders, legs crossed, arms folded, hands mittened, that endures.
Snapped by photographer Brendan Smialowski, something about Sanders’s demeanour in the picture struck a chord with people. Is he cold? Is he bored? Is he both?
Before long the internet was flooded with Bernie Sanders mittens memes, everyone clambering to photoshop the unimpressed Sanders into various setups. There he was riding the subway in New York, sitting on the Iron Throne from GoT and, my personal favourite, sitting on a park bench alongside Forrest Gump.
— 🏴kieran kiely 🥷 (@comedy_kieran) January 22, 2021
While we all revelled in the joy that was Mittens Sanders, no one was more amused than Jen Ellis. A second-grade teacher from Vermont, Ellis knits mittens as a hobby, and four years ago she managed to get a pair into (and onto) the hands of Sanders.
“His daughter-in-law is the director and owner of the preschool that my daughter attends,” laughs Ellis down the phone to GRAZIA from a freezing Vermont. It’s snowing there, perfect mitten weather.
“I was making mittens as holiday gifts for my daughter’s teacher, and I made an extra pair for Bernie, and asked his daughter-in-law to give them to him. He had just lost the Democratic Primaries to Hilary, so I wanted to cheer him up.”
“I just wanted Bernie to know that I still believed in him, so I wrote a little note inside saying I hope you run again!”
Ellis’s gentle prompting did the trick, and Sanders did run again, this time losing the Democratic nomination to current US President, Joe Biden.
“During the primaries last year he started wearing the mittens I gave him on the campaign trail,” recalls Ellis. “I had a little flurry of sales after that, but then it was over, and it all disappeared until Inauguration Day.”
While Joe Biden was busy being sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, Jen was dealing with the day to day realities of teaching during a pandemic.
“I was remote teaching, so I was in my classroom by myself, but I was online with my students, and suddenly my phone just started dinging and dinging and dinging,” recalls Ellis.
“Eventually one of my students said, ‘I think someone is trying to contact you, Ms Ellis.’”
At pains to avoid committing the ultimate act of teacher hypocrisy – “we’re all about no phones in the classroom,” adds Ellis – the 42-year-old checked her phone just in case it was an emergency.
“Someone had sent me a text saying ‘Bernie wore your mittens to Inauguration!’ but at the time I didn’t think too much of it,” she says.
This mitten frenzy is really distracting me from getting my mid-year report cards done! #Berniesmittens
— Jen Ellis (@vtawesomeness) January 24, 2020
Despite not being an avid television watcher Ellis hustled home, desperate to catch the end of the inauguration.
“My wife had to get the antenna working because we rarely watch television, but we wanted our daughter to see Kamala Harris become the first female Vice President to be inaugurated,” says Ellis. “I’m 42, and I waited four decades to see a woman in the VP role, my daughter only had to wait five years!”
She did catch a few glimpses of Senator Sanders’ rocking her handiwork, but she never could’ve predicted what the next day would bring.
“I woke up to 1000 emails in my inbox, then the next day it was 18,000, and it just took off from there.”
Ellis fielded mitten requests from every corner of the globe, all while watching her inbox swell.
“I think after the first day my email just stopped working,” she says.
Simultaneously, the internet was mythologising the Bernie Sanders mittens meme, plastering the image across social media.
“People are so funny and so creative, the memes have just been mind-blowing. I love the New York City transit one, that’s great,” says Ellis. “They offered up a good laugh in a time when people needed a laugh, and it’s not at anyone expense.”
Over the past four years, Sanders has shown an uncanny knack of keeping his finger on the pulse, a trait that belies his 78 years. Never one to miss a marketing opportunity, the Sanders’ camp quickly began selling official Bernie Sanders mitten merch; t-shirts, sweaters and stickers adorned with the image.
The merchandise sold out within thirty minutes raising nearly $1.8 million which went to numerous Vermont charities including Feeding Chittenden, a community food program and the Chill Foundation, a youth organisation that teaches local children skills.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) January 28, 2021
Last week Sanders rang Ellis to thank her for playing a part in his internet fame – oh, and for the mittens.
“He called me to let me know that he had almost raised $2 million so he just said thank you, and thank you for the mittens, I was pretty starstruck,” admits Ellis. “But it felt like talking to an old friend, that’s kind of how Vermonters are, people love to chat in this state.”
Needless to say, Ellis’s small-town life has been upended in a big way since Inauguration Day.
“If I was going to be thrust into the spotlight I’m glad it’s for something that brings joy and transcends political boundaries,” she says with a laugh. “If you’re going to have 15 minutes of fame, it might as well be for a good thing.”
And while she has no plans to abandon her day job, she has managed to find a distributor to meet the demand for her Berne Sanders mittens.
“I just announced a partnership with the Vermont Teddy Bear company, which typically makes teddy bears but they’re now making mittens, and they’re going to produce the original Bernie Sanders mitten for anyone and everyone who wants them,” says Ellis.
“I still have over 18,000 inquiries in my inbox. Finally, I can tell people the Bernie Sanders mittens will be available soon!”