If you’ve walked around Grounds in the past year, chances are you have seen a t-shirt brandishing the phrase “UVA Stepmom.” The iconic, satirical t-shirts have become a fashion staple among the University student body, and their design, production and promotion can be accredited to one student creative — third-year Commerce student Mary Walton Petersen.
What started as a one-off joke intended for some of Petersen’s friends has morphed into an inside joke held between hundreds of students that serves as a quintessential symbol of University social culture.
In the summer of 2022, when Petersen decided to launch a clothing brand to sell a few of her personal designs, the first “UVA Stepmom" shirt was born as a comedic way to gain some traction for the brand. Parodying the classic “UVA Mom” and “UVA Dad” shirts, Petersen was inspired to release a “sexier alternative.”
Since then, Petersen’s brand has become not only an outlet for her own self expression, but a space to build community. In every aspect of the business, Petersen’s original objective has not changed — to keep creating content and merchandise that makes herself and others laugh.
“I just want to make my friends laugh and try to accumulate as many friends as possible under the brand,” Petersen said. “UVA Stepmom really was, and always will be for U.Va. and the students.”
Following the success of the first “UVA Stepmom” shirt, Petersen went on to sell more iterations in various sizes, styles and colors. Soon after, she released several more designs including “UVA Stepdad,” “UVA Menace” and — Petersen’s personal favorite — “UVA Ginger.”
As the brand continues to grow, Petersen has maintained her values as a clothing retailer, focusing on sustainable production. Every shirt the brand sells is second-hand and screen printed with water-based ink.
“I really don't want any part of this process to be bad,” Petersen said. “[We’re] just trying to keep it as localized as possible.”
Having originally been inspired to design clothing by the exciting and experimental outfits dawned by iconic female pop stars — like Britney Spears and Doja Cat — Petersen uses her brand to bring this same style of fun and original fashion to Grounds and hopes that customers will be inspired to do the same.
“I wanted something on a scale for the college campus so that everyone feels free enough to show who they really are,” Petersen said. “To be able to take that into their own hands and show their story in what they wear.”
Having gained traction with a wide audience of students, the brand has opened up opportunities for Petersen to create online content. The brand’s Instagram — which has amassed over 800 followers — is filled with memes about student culture and jokes about life on Grounds. This platform has also allowed Petersen to create relevant and relatable content to be appreciated by the student body, and has given her a place to highlight the individuality of her friends and customers.
“In short, we are an ironic college apparel company,” Petersen said. “But really what the whole brand is about is really, I suppose, acknowledging individuals for how special they are and what they bring to the table.”
Growing beyond social media content, the brand has further accomplished its goal of showcasing student individuality by hosting events. Last spring, the brand held “Step Comedy Jam,” an “intimate picnic-style porch comedy concert” offering a venue and audience to several student comedians.
“[Step Comedy Jam] was my favorite thing to do,” Petersen said. “I don't really think there's a great outlet for people who have artistic talents and want to actually be able to do that in front of a friendly environment.”
Petersen is planning another similar event for this semester. As “UVA Stepmom” continues to grow in popularity and reach a broader audience, Petersen said she hopes to get more people involved in both the community and business.
Petersen said she values the opportunity “UVA Stepmom” has given her to express herself and share her passions with a larger community.
“I really think that owning your own business should be like a form of self portraiture,” Petersen said. “Everyone has a gift that they can give to the world.”