1971The T-shirt is probably the most important marketing icon of the 20th and 21st Century and this year it turns 100 years old.  Most of us can chronicle our lives by our t-shirts.  We have drawers of t-shirts we can’t throw away.  Remember your first concert t-shirt, your first college t-shirt, your first career t-shirt, your first Bonnaroo t-shirt, your first protest t-shirt, your first Marathon t-shirt, your first American Apparel t-shirt.   T-shirts unite us and tell our story.

A measure of the power of your brand identity is how good it looks on a t-shirt.  It is also the symbol of the emotional connection of your brand, your organization or your event.  It’s the one piece of apparel that unites us in an amazing way.  Ask any parent that has traveled with a group of teenagers – those t-shirts are powerful identifiers.

The T-Shirt Facts

CustomInk recently commissioned a survey of 1,000 representative Americans over the age of 18 that revealed:

95% of Americans wear t-shirts
89% of t-shirt wearing Americans put on a tee at least once a week
9 in every 10 Americans (87%) own at least one t-shirt they refuse to “trash” because of sentimental attachment

19773Marketers have long loved the t-shirt.  In fact the history of the t-shirt certainly tells a marketing story.  T-shirts are marketing billboards, a personal expression of their passions, a novelty and a memory of past times.

In 1932, students started stealing USC t-shirts from the USC football team that said “Property of USC”.1932    The first political t-shirt was “Do it with Dewey”  for his 1948 presidential election.  T-shirts first became popular for everyday wear in the 1950s with the debut of Marlon Brando in the iconic white shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire.  James Dean added his own mark when he appeared in the t-shirt.  Woodstock gave us tie-dyed t-shirts.  Today, many notable and memorable T-shirts produced in the 1970s have now become ensconced in pop culture. Examples include the bright yellow happy face T-shirts, The Rolling Stones tops with their “tongue and lips”logo from the Sticky Fingers album, and Milton Glaser’s iconic “I ♥ N Y” design.

The “I ♥ N Y” design is supposedly the most popular t-shirt ever created. The t-shirt has come a long way since the first t-shirt appeared as standard-issue gear within the U.S. Navy in 1913.  The Navy wanted the lightest weight cotton undershirt they could find. Sailors quickly adopted it as standard attire without their uniform.

The Way To Belong

Research shows we have 13 t-shirts we hold on to for special reasons.  Psychologists say that customized t-shirts are a way to express ourselves in a world of mass markets – “we have infused the spirit of something greater into an object that is seemingly meaningless.”  They are the tribal costumes of today – a measure of belonging.  They become our modern coats of arms.   Here are some of my favorites:

• A Bowling Night shirt from one of my workplace events that says:  Just another night in the gutter with my friends

• A grey standard order Marines t-shirt that signifies my son’s entering the Marines

• Multiple USC t-shirts that represent the football games and parent weekends from my kids’ college days

• A Grammy Museum t-shirt that was from the opening of the LA museum where my daughter worked

• A Minnie Pearl t-shirt that celebrated her 100th birthday and all the laughs she provided us.

• A Simon and Garfunkel concert t-shirt

• Peace and Goodwill to Men t-shirt that I had printed for the Christmas season one year just because

• My “Old Bat” t-shirt that I wear every Halloween

Tell me what some of your favorite t-shirt are and why they are special to you.