Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A T-Shirt Economy

Slaid Cleaves--"Black T-Shirt" (mp3)
Captain Soul--"T-Shirt 69" (mp3)

Want to jumpstart the economy? The answer may lie in t-shirts. Who doesn't have dozens of them already, more than they could ever possibly wear, and yet, we think nothing of picking up another one, two, or three every time we take a trip somewhere?

Inundated as I am today, sitting here surrounded by the boxes of t-shirts that we are selling to raise money for a Haiti charity, and bored out of my skull while waiting for students to show up and get them while I miss lunch, my thoughts have turned to a deeper inspection of the damn things that I own far too many of.

If you work where I work, or if you live pretty much anywhere in the world, t-shirts are the dominant fashion statement.

And not just t-shirts, but American t-shirts or knock off of American t-shirts or imitations of them. Asian countries have an entire subculture of shirts designed to look like American shirts in English but that either mean absolutely nothing or are poorly translated or are intentionally ridiculous. When I was in Korea, I never could figure that out. But I did buy my daughter one. "I'm Very Pleased With This Happy" it read.

Here's perhaps a little more history than you want to know. T-shirts in America first became popular with our troops who were overseas during the First World War. The soldiers saw their British and French counterparts relaxing comfortably in the lightweight white shirts while they sweltered in their wool uniforms. (Hey, I told you I was bored.) The t-shirts made their way back home with the returning soldiers and became regular for workers in hot factories.

It wasn't until the 1960's that companies started printing logos and slogans and names of favorite bands and everything else screened or tie-dyed onto t-shirts that we take for granted today. The decade that is sometimes reduced to "sex, drugs, rock 'n roll" certainly conveyed those values on the t-shirts of the day, along with messages of peace, freedom, and distrust of the man.

And sometime before or after that, somebody figured out that t-shirts could turn us all into walking billboards. Back then, I remember a promotion where if you bought a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes, you got a Lucky Strike t-shirt "for free." Think about that for a second. Why would anyone feel the need to brag to the world what kind of tobacco they stuck in their mouths? But it was cool. And beer followed. And tractors. And there you have it.

Now, t-shirts=branding.

And us folks these days like to brand everything. We like people to know what we stand for, or at least where we once stood, what we pay for or the price we paid. You could almost get ahold of somebody's t-shirts from, say, the last 5 years, and use those to make a pretty good guess at that person's life story, especially his or her social class, likes and dislikes, schooling, geographical location, politics, degree of gregariousness.

At our school, our entire "economy" is based on t-shirts. You want to commemorate a school event? Sell a t-shirt. You want to create team or group unity? Make a t-shirt. You want to collect clothes to send to a Third World country? Collect t-shirts.

Most of all, you want to raise money, a lot of money? Sell a t-shirt. There's no better way, at least here. Why? A t-shirt, even with a fancy, multi-colored design on it, is going to cost you less than 5 bucks if you order them in bulk. Order 500 of them and sell them for $15 and all of a sudden you've got $5000. And nobody blinks at paying $15 for a shirt. Think about how much they cost at a concert now. Sell them for $10 and people think that they are getting a bargain.

My friend runs an organization that regularly sells 2500 shirts at $15 each for the biggest football game of the year. In two designs. Genius. Though no one might be inclined to think about it in these terms, he has been, for at least the past 10 years, the top, most pervasive clothing designer in this city (except for the Vol empire, of course).

T-shirts are so pervasive that it seems that as long as you've got a cool design, you almost can't glut the market. They are that product that makes us behave like gluttons, forcing more and more upon ourselves, even though our brain knows that we've already consumed more than we possibly need. They are that product that can leave us standing before a closet or a chest of drawers before a social outing, evaluating all of the choices until we think that we have found just that perfect statement of who we are to wear on our chests. We flip through the various brands of slogans and colors and places and teams, and with a careful process of elimination, find a way to use the brands to brand ourselves.


cinderkeys said...

I never understood the walking billboard thing either. Well, except in the case of band t-shirts.

Hmm ... We're going to have to get more of our band shirts printed up soon.

troutking said...

What does the band Plain White T's sell at their concerts?

Billy said...

I regularly boast that I will pretty much wear any piece of clothing someone buys for me.

Strangely, this doesn't stretch to T-shirts. About T-shirts, I'm choosy. Maybe it's their very cheap-ness that makes me feel like, if I'm gonna wear it, I better be proud of it, 'cuz it sure ain't a fashion statement that'll impress Carrie Bradshaw.

Enjoyed the info, too.

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