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Fall 2005 T-Shirts: Back on Top

The T-shirt, that staple of casual couture, is back in a big way. Its popularity has waxed and waned in the last 40 years, but they’re on top again, smarter than ever.

“The history of the T-shirt is the history of the 20th century in microcosm: from unspoken to outspoken, from humble origins to a symbol of rebellion, to the badge of the cool jet-setter,” writes Keith J. Hall in Verbatim. Just about everyone wears them, has a dozen of them, and always seems to want more. There are fashion T-shirts, basic T’s, fun T’s, workout Ts and so on. But it wasn’t always that way.

Undercover story

The simple T-shaped shirt—hence, “T-shirt”—has come a long way. T-shirts used to come only in white, olive drab or unbleached-cotton beige. T-shirts were invisible. They were supposed to be. That’s why they came in those non-colors—so they wouldn’t show.

Early in the 20th century, the T-shirt was nothing more than a humble article of men’s underwear, an advancement of the one-piece “union suit,” still dutifully hidden under a man’s shirt—which is why it was known not as a T-shirt but as an under shirt.

The history of the classic T-shirt is a little uncertain, but the two prevailing stories feature the US military during WWI. One story has it that US soldiers saw European soldiers wearing cotton undershirts during the hot, humid months. The undershirts were light, comfortable and absorbent, and quickly caught on with the Americans, who brought them home to the States. But in The T-Shirt Book (Gibbs Smith), author Scott Fresener says it started with the US Navy, which adopted a white crew-neck, short-sleeved cotton undershirt in 1913, a new classic was born, and in the 1920s, the word “T-shirt” was officially ushered into the language when Merriam-Webster added it to their dictionary.

No one is sure when the first T was produced commercially, but Fresener says it wasn’t until the late 1930s that companies such as Hanes, Sears & Roebuck, and Fruit of the Loom started marketing the T-shirt heavily. But in 1934, thanks to a rakish, undershirtless Clark Gable in the movie It Happened One Night, sales of T’s as undershirts took a nosedive. Later that decade, though, it found new life as a sportswear essential at college and commercial gyms all over the country. Even so, it was never worn as outerwear.

World War II brought undershirts back, this time in olive drab as well as white. After the war, white cap-sleeved undershirts became de rigueur for American men, especially white-collar workers.

The T-shirt finally broke out from under in the 1950s, again thanks to Hollywood: Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire shocked and delighted movie-goers by appearing in a tight, sexy, gritty T-shirt—in effect, wearing “underwear” in public. The look quickly caught on, bolstered by teen idols of the ’50s—notably James Dean, who wore the T-shirt as a teen-angst fashion statement in Rebel Without a Cause. “Suddenly the undershirt started moving into the ‘sexy’ category,” writes Glenn Meyers in Wearables Business magazine.

In the 1960s, when the tie-dye craze hit, the basic cotton T became a huge commercial success—it was cheap to buy, easy to dye, and fun to wear. From then on, the T-shirt became deeply embedded in American culture as the most popular item of clothing, and something more: a message board, a fabric billboard, a wearable bumper-sticker. It became and still is a reflection of pop culture on combed cotton.

Making a statement

imageFashion gurus said slogan or “statement” T-shirts went out of style a long time ago. Sales did slump (was it about fashion, or about humor?), but slogan T’s are definitely back. Millions of shirts with funny, playful or provocative messages are selling all over the US and on the Web (see p. 149). And the messages are fresh.

Betty Kropf, writing in the trade magazine Stitches, says T-shirts are attractive to consumers not only because they’re versatile, comfortable and relatively cheap, but also because they give people a way to express their view of the world—and get a response. “One of the main reasons people like T-shirts is because they have a ‘blank-slate’ quality that makes them ideal for the art of self-expression,” says Kropf. Bumper stickers serve the same purpose, but there’s no opportunity for immediate feedback. But a T-shirt with a cool, catchy slogan usually gets a response on the spot.

Many companies have built their success with unique statement T-shirts. Laughing Out Loud (Vancouver, BC) is one of them. A T-shirt wholesaler and cart franchiser, LOL has 143 designs and an assortment of fun, tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes edgy) slogans that never fail to attract attention. And the company sells 80,000 of them a year. LOL is owned and operated by brothers Shawn and Donny Walia, who started the company early last year and have expanded it from a home-based business to a large-scale operation that sells to retail outlets throughout Canada. Shawn Walia, the 24-year-old president, says their best-selling designs are the ones with sexy or flirty humor, like “My boyfriend is out of town” or “Damn right I’m good in bed: I can sleep for days.” “We thought our customers would be more in the 14-25 age range, but it’s really the 25-45 crowd,” he says. “A lot of college kids also wear these T-shirts.”

Walia says the slogans from the early ’90s were a bit corny (“This isn’t a bald spot, it’s a solar panel for a sex machine.”). Now the jokes are more subtle, smarter, hipper. Laura Brown, writing in Details magazine, notes the fine line between stupid and clever. A T-shirt that says “I’m out of bed. I’m dressed. What more do you want?” will attract attention and smiles, she says, but a human billboard with “100% Prime Meat” is just lame. The trick is to be smart, wry, hip—and at least somewhat tasteful. (“How do you keep an idiot in suspense?” fits the description.) That’s what’s sells.

Good to go

Aside from gags and conversation-starters, T-shirts often express personal beliefs, even something as personal as faith. Kerusso, the nation’s leading manufacturer of Christian-message apparel, sells about one million T-shirts a year. Their bright colors and modern designs are perfect for Kerusso’s mostly young audience. Vic Kennett, president and founder, says there are about 85 million born-again Christians in the US, and 78 percent believe it’s their responsibility to tell others about Christ. “You can turn your body into a walking billboard for your cause, and in our case it’s for faith,” says Kennett. Far from cliché “Jesus Loves Me” messages, today’s slogans are catchy, and written with young people in mind—for example, “Yes, I’m a princess, and my father is the King of Kings.”

Another company that uses T-shirts to spread the word is Life Expanding, which grew from the idea that by promoting awareness in ourselves, we create an awareness in others. The company’s motto: “We believe that by showing love, respect and understanding for all people, we can shape a world that has no place for fear, ignorance or intolerance.” Co-founders Kelly O’Bier and Penni MM Smith decided to sell T-shirts with positive messages because “everybody wants a better world, but nobody does anything about it,” says O’Bier. “We empower people by giving them a positive message, a positive energy.”

The partners come up with original designs themselves, and market to New Age stores and yoga shops. The plain T-shirts feature simple slogans with big impact, such as “Change—Embrace It” and “Courage—Show It.” Do these messages really work? O’Bier tells a story of Smith on the subway, wearing their “You Can Always Be a Little Nicer” shirt. A boy sitting across from her kept looking at the shirt and looking away; when an elderly woman got on, he gave up his seat (albeit a little grudgingly). “Our T-shirts make people conscious about these things,” says O’Bier.

And then there’s Dirt Shirts (Fort Worth, Texas), a company whose T-shirts are hand-dyed in dirt. To make things even more interesting, the dirt (actually, clay) comes from five states: Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and Texas. The clays are brought in by dump trucks and mixed with water to form a thick red-brown mud. When the mud is just right, the dirt-bath begins: clean, white, 100-percent cotton (Hanes or Fruit of the Loom) T-shirts go into the mix, and the transformation begins. The dyers press the mud into the fabric of each shirt by hand, achieving the rich red-brown color these shirts have become known for.

imageThe company distributes them nationwide, mostly to tourist destinations, and sells 25,000 shirts a year. “Our biggest advantage is that we’re funky and different,” says owner David Urbel. “People want a special ‘state’ Dirt Shirt, and they love it when they can say their shirt was dyed in Oklahoma dirt or Texas dirt.” Even the way Dirt Shirts are displayed is different: the T-shirt stand features a large shovel with a handle.

Catsby Jones, the owner and founder of Peace Frogs, also came up with a cool way to sell and display his company’s T-shirts: brightly painted, customized VW vans from the ’60s and ’70s. The van attracts customers as no standard-issue cart can, and has been especially successful in amusement parks and festivals as well as in malls.

The Peace Frogs line features fun designs and colorful fabrics with its trademark—a frog flashing the “V” peace sign—on every item. “Our T-shirts are clever and funny, with no nasty or negative messages,” says Jones. “They’re cool enough for the kids, and great for moms. We have a variety of styles for every age and every hobby.” The company’s in-house art team creates new designs based on market research, online surveys, and brainstorming sessions.

Sometimes the simplest design can attract consumers and meet a niche demand. Shelley Bolton and Kim Manheim, two moms who wanted to do something creative, started It Ain’t Right (Memphis, TN), T-shirts for women who are past the “show off my belly button” stage but still want to wear fashionable clothes—including T-shirts with cute but not-too-young slogans and not too-skimpy cuts. It Ain’t Right’s T-shirts are a bit longer, have cap sleeves, and are made of a more expensive, high-quality cotton.

“The simple designs appeal to women all ages,” says Bolton, plus their innovative packaging helps sell in upscale tourist and gift shops. Packaging for the “Chick Bone” line, for example, with its fun dachshund design on the front, looks like a dog bone: the shirt is rolled up and tied with a string. “People really stop to look when they see our stuff,” she says.

Another approach: fill an undiscovered niche. Sarah Finecey started a successful T-shirt business with college friend Lisa Brugliera because “there was nothing for her to wear.” Finecey says there are plenty of athletic and casual T-shirts designed for girls, teens and women just into their 20s, but they don’t work for older 20-somethings and up who still want a casual, stylish look but not the glitter and fluorescent colors. The idea for the company started as a college marketing project at Arizona State University, and bloomed into See Jane Play. Finecey and Brugliera worked closely with a graphic artist to create a design that was simple but far from boring. The See Jane Play shirts feature simple designs of “Jane” playing different sports, are flattering without being too snug.

Fundamentals still apply

“The T-shirt has emerged as one of the hottest trends to hit the streets, although it’s been around for what seems like forever,” writes Karin Eldor, fashion correspondent for “With all the different options out there, you can’t really go wrong by wearing a T-shirt.” And you can’t really go wrong selling them—as long as you offer a variety of colors, designs and slogans that make customers feel special when they slip one on.

Along with variety, merchandising is key. A cleverly designed display that features many different shirts will attract mall shoppers who weren’t even planning on buying a T-shirt. “Organize, organize, organize,” says Walia. T-shirts at LOL kiosks are neatly folded into 81⁄2″x11″ rectangles and displayed up-right, alternating light and dark colors for contrast. “T-shirts practically sell themselves when they’re arranged in a way that makes everyone who walks by actually stop and read what it says.”

Whether you sell nothing but T-shirts or just a line or two added into your merchandise mix, following these guidelines can help ensure strong sales:

  • Keep up with hot styles, and reorder items that sell quickly. “Running out of popular styles can be a killer for the business,” says Walia.
  • Offer shirts made of top-quality materials such as the thicker, 101⁄2 oz. shirts made from pre-shrunk cotton. And if they’re tagless, even better. Customers appreciate good quality and will come back for more.
  • Stock up on more styles, even if it means ordering lower volume. People are more likely to buy if they have a lot of choices.
  • T-shirts are often an impulse buy. Position, display and sell them with that in mind.
  • Don’t put a mirror in your kiosk. “I’ve never seen anyone actually try on a T-shirt,” says Walia, and that’s not what sells the shirt. People know their size—they buy the design, not the fit.
  • Location is crucial. T-shirts sell best in tourist locations and resort communities. “When people go on vacation, they don’t mind spending the extra money to buy T-shirts as souvenirs,” says Jones.


“From big cities to small towns to the remotest corners of the earth, T-shirts have permeated every social, cultural and economic stratum of human life,” says Kropf. They’ve become so commonplace that, to succeed in this saturated market, retailers must offer styles that meet a specific need and make their customers feel as if they’re buying a unique product—something that will evoke the “How cool! Where did you get it?” response.

T-shirts are definitely back. Whether it’s a solid classic worn under a jacket, a teeny pink T with ‘tude, a souvenir or a show of loyalty, shoppers love buying T-shirts because they’re fun, easy, and affordable. And retailers love selling them because they’re fun, easy, and profitable.

Kasia Dawidowska

Dawidowska writes frequently for both trade and consumer magazines. She can be reached at .

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