We, the T-shirt is a 12-month master’s thesis project built by Nardine Saad for the achievement of a master’s degree at the University of Southern California.

The project focuses on the history and evolution of the basic t-shirt and how it has become an American cultural icon, most notably an emblem for hyper-commercialism. From men’s underwear to a walking billboard to high fashion, the t-shirt is just as useable as it was when if first cropped up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The t-shirt is one of the most basic items in a person’s wardrobe. Each t-shirt a person owns—the free one, the one from an event, the college one, or the sports tee, especially if it has a screen on it—blatantly advertises something, whether it be a drink, a company or a fraternity. America’s social history is splayed across these garments and most people don’t even think twice about how what they wear says everything about their society.

The t-shirt is simply the canvas on which our cultural transformations have taken place. It is fascinating to take one garment and see how it has morphed over the decades and what that says about our social history. It is easier to see culture as a collective mindset when you talk about one garment.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans used the t-shirt as the medium to establish their individual identities. This was mitigated by the development of tie-dyes and silk screening and a major boom in the t-shirt industry was the result. Women started wearing t-shirts when they wanted to be viewed as men’s equals. Experts say that even though the medium didn’t change in form during this time, personalizing the t-shirt was a way to stand out. In the 1980s, the shirt became a favorite form of brand management for corporations and advertisers.

Americans also don’t realize that they have essentially become advertisements by donning these tees. This project also analyzes how that culture emerged.

After entertainment, fashion is Los Angeles’ most profitable industry. It is one of America’s largest homes to high fashion designers and textile manufacturers. In 2005, the industry raked in $32.9 billion. The humble t-shirt is practically the uniform for laid back Southern Californian’s. This symbol of casual couture is woven into American cultural history through capitalism and hyper-commercialism.

This is the story of the evolution of the modern t-shirt—from conception to consumption–told through Los Angeles t-shirt companies and consumers.

Special thanks to:

  • John Adams
  • Adriana Dermenjian
  • Jenn Harris
  • Robert Hernandez
  • Bill Celis
  • Marlene Towns
  • Sandy Tolan

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About the Author

Nardine Saad Nardine Saad is a t-shirt aficionado and has nostalgically hung on to tees dating back to middle school (she usually sleeps in those). Her favorite t-shirts are a loose fitting white tee and one that says "Rock Like An Egyptian." She is a candidate for a master's degree in online journalism at the University of Southern California. These stories comprise her master's thesis project.