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.

Wikipedia by mikeedesign

Wikipedia by mikeedesign

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.

This woman does not appreciate owning one of only Big Block Bad Boy t-shirts in existence. For shame.

This woman does not appreciate owning one of only Big Block Bad Boy t-shirts in existence. For shame.

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.

No, I’m not talking about obsessed Apple fans; I’m talking about t-shirt lovers who enthusiastically consume the products on t-shirt of the day sites such as Qwertee and RipT Apparel.

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.

My best attempt at a political cartoon.

My best attempt at a political cartoon.

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.

Sometimes, the products just sell themselves.

Sometimes, the products just sell themselves.

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.

Want to chill outside a coffee shop at 2 in the afternoon on a weekday? Get t-shirts working for you, and this could be you!

Want to chill outside a coffee shop at 2 in the afternoon on a weekday? Get t-shirts working for you, and this could be you!

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!

Expand 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

Jana Quinn

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+.


  1. Eric

    Cullen hair?!? If anything, they borrowed that look from Dean. But – to your credit – both Brando and Dean made the white t-shirt iconic, which surely isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. More than anything else, though, along with blue jeans, the tee is a distinctly American contribution to fashion. You like ‘murrica? You’ll love wearing a tee. ‘Nuff said.

  2. Wash

    As a huge fan of nerdy t-shirts, 99% of my wardrobe is comprised of shirts from Shirt.Woot. I’ll definitely have to check out those other shirt-of-the-day sites!

    • Jana Quinn

      I am a t-shirt of the day addict. I’ve had happy experiences with RipT and Qwertee, and I continue to bankrupt myself with nerdtastic shirts. Check for your daily dose of daily tees; you’ll thank/beat me up later. 🙂

      • Wash

        I just checked out I’m not sure if this is yet the greatest thing ever, or if I am going to go into severe debt because of it.

  3. Jay

    As far as the collectors items go….

    One great example is my favorite modern artist, Jeremy Fish. His paintings go for thousands of dollars, but since he’s a younger guy and realizes that most of his fans can’t spend $5k on an original painting, he makes limited amounts of shirts out of some of them, and subsequently, makes about as much money on t-shirts on his websites as he does in galleries.

    • Jana Quinn

      Great example. I like how he made his art accessible to those who don’t have the funds to buy an original but doesn’t reduce the value of an original by printing tons of copies. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Myrtle

    I love cats.

  5. Wash

    Also, “accunts.” It’s true! That’s some awesome fail. Bwahaha!

  6. Kat

    Myrtle DOES love cats….. I personally try to pick up a shirt from any concert / show / festival I attend. Sometimes the prices are way over the top but worth it to keep the memory of that day/night alive. 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      Absolutely! T-shirts can be a wonderful way to bring back memories of a special event without hauling out an album of photos. Plus, showing off past concert memories at the band’s next concert establishes you as a hardcore fan. 🙂

  7. Mikey

    Heh, I could look through these shirt sites all day! Some great nerdy tees there (favorites include “CELEBRATE!” and “Wrong Door.”). But, I’ve always loved looking through the t-shirt sections of stores, just to see what people come up with. While I love the idea of tees with fun stuff on them, in practice I tend to wear basic, plain shirts. I just don’t feel comfortable wearing “loud” or “busy” shirts, but that’s me. Thanks for the fun and informative blog post!

    • Wash

      Let your nerd pride out, sir! 😀

    • Jana Quinn

      Embrace your inner t-shirt artist and get something flashy, Mikey!

  8. Rachel

    The T-shirt-of-the-day strategy is frustratingly effective. I’m not much of an impulse buyer, but it’s been VERY difficult to turn down a lot of cool shirts that come through those T-shirt sites, knowing that the low-price window is so fleeting. I don’t need any of these shirts! Why am I so tempted to buy them?? Ugh.

    Great post overall, Jana. It’s fascinating to see the journey T-shirts have traveled. Also, A+ choice of shirt design for the Qwertee link… 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      I think you hit it right on the head: “The low-price window is so fleeting.” That false sense of urgency definitely motivates me to pull out my credit card, even though I’ve seen plenty of the shirts cycle through several of the daily deal sites.

      Glad you enjoyed my link choice. 🙂

  9. keith

    Who knew you could make $3,000 a week just for wearing someones t-shirt? Where do I sign up? It’s amazaing how far t-shirts have come from just being an under shirt for the Navy to now being able to get the name of your company out there and be paid to wear them!

    Another great and intriguing article!

    • Jana Quinn

      Thanks, Keith! It does seem like a dream gig, doesn’t it? These companies that are willing to shell out the cash are now getting a social media marketing package along with the t-shirt, but it all started with one tee.

      Thanks for stopping by to read and comment. 🙂

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