From Underwear to Upper Class: The Evolution of the T-Shirt
T-shirts have more identities than Stefani Germanotta, serving as designer duds, prized possessions, and marketing materials. The custom t-shirt is the Swiss army knife of, well, life. Personalized t-shirts have had a dramatic impact on society, pop culture, and business. So whether you want to broadcast your brand or cover your ass, brush up on the history of t-shirts.
T-Shirts as Fashion
T-shirts showed up as standard issue underwear for the Navy in the early 1900s but weren’t seen topside as a fashion statement until Marlon Brando* busted out his guns in a tight-fitting tee in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 and James Dean** followed with his motorcycle, cigarette, and Cullen hair in A Rebel Without a Cause in 1955.
Since then, t-shirts have told us what Frankie says, helped us stick it The Man with band logos, and saved us thousands on tux rentals.
Oh, and they’ve made companies boatloads of money.
T-Shirts as Collector’s Items
Certainly vintage concert t-shirts and retro political campaign memorabilia command the title collectible, but there’s a new t-shirt distribution method in town that’s creating modern day collectibles every day.
The 24-hours-and-it’s-gone approach creates a sense of urgency in the potential buyer: if you wait longer than a day, you won’t be able to get this amazing tee! The tees are generally between 10 and 15 dollars, so even when they’re made available on other sites such as Red Bubble past the date of sale, they cost more, and there’s no sense of excitement built in with taking advance of a limited time offer.
Also, the tees are also generally marketed toward more niche interests: inside jokes from cult TV shows, references to fantasy books, and mash-ups of multiple fandoms. It’s a lot easier to generate enthusiasm (and sales!) within a fandom for a single day’s worth of printing than attempting to stock the shirt year-round in a national chain that may not be targeting the geek audience.
T-Shirts as Revenue Streams
Anyone who has a “…and all I got was this stupid t-shirt” t-shirt knows that t-shirts are popular souvenir items. But many haven’t stopped to consider t-shirts as a source of revenue for a business that’s not actually selling t-shirt as their target product.
In 2003, Red vs. Blue, a hilarious web series about the popular video game Halo, premiered for free. The show was such a huge hit with online audiences, and the creators wanted to quit their jobs to work on the series full time. But they also didn’t want to have to charge for the show and dramatically cut down their audience. The solution?
By selling t-shirts featuring one-liners and in-jokes from the show, the four creators were able to fulfill their dream of paying the bills with their passion without driving down the fan base.
T-shirt tie-ins to fund restoration of historical locations and support less well-known cancers at awareness events draw revenue in a way that not only allows participation in the event to remain free but also allows the consumer to feel like part of a community.
T-Shirts as Walking Billboards
QLP is in the printed t-shirt business, so we obviously know how amazing t-shirts are at minimal effort marketing. Shirts get an average of 11 brand impressions per day (more if the wearer is in a crowded mall or a big party!), and they’re a lot less likely to end up in the trash with flyers and business cards.
Advertising on customized t-shirts is so lucrative, in fact, that companies are willing to pay people to wear their branded shirts. Jason Sadler, t-shirt enthusiast and owner of I Wear Your Shirt, starts his fees at $3000 per week to wear a company’s shirt and promote through videos and social networking. A small idea that started with a dollar for each day of the year he wore the shirt – $1 on January 1st to $365 on December 31st – has ballooned into a money-spinner when companies begged for more than a single day’s worth of promotion.
Sports teams, bands, and political candidates all somehow convince consumers that they should be paying for their own shirts… which in turn promote those sports teams, bands, and political candidates. And passionate supporters are more than willing to put down a few dollars to be considered active parts of those communities.
T-Shirts and You
What’s your relationship with the classic top? Do you have a collection of band tees? An addiction to t-shirt of the day sites? Promotional tees with your company logo? Sound off in the comments below!
Until next time, keep expanding your brand!
*The Joseph Gordon-Levitt of the 1950’s
**The Ryan Gosling of the 1950’s
T-Shirt History Sources: Neatorama, Zoozoo2, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette (Two of these clearly ripped off whichever one was published first, so I put all three here instead of launching an investigation. If you click any link, click on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: the word “accunts” appears in the first paragraph.)
Image Credits: Wikipedia shirt by mikeedesign
An old ‘G’ that’s been working for QLP since it was in Bret’s basement – Jana has been writing since she made up a story about a Jana-Tiger that liked rocky road ice cream and got straight A’s. She enjoys writing about marketing and pop culture, posting a ‘Die Hard’ article as often as she’s allowed. She is inspired by the articles at Cracked and frequently wears a Snuggie in the office. You can also connect with Jana on Google+.