An Expert With Answers

Bettina Cornwell studied the t-shirt as a ritual object and is currently a marketing a professor at the University of Michigan

In 1989, Bettina Cornwell set out to explain the importance and function of clothing in culture in the paper T-Shirts As Wearable Diaries: An Examination of Artifact Consumption and Garnering Related to Life Events.”

She chose the t-shirt as an artifact to study because of its “pervasiveness in society and unisex nature” and in many cases it communicates a message as its primary function. Cornwell included herself and four other individuals in the sample for this study.

In the article, Cornwell cites the spirituality of t-shirts, t-shirts as labels of cultural category, in rites of passage, as trophies and as “poly-cotton pheromones.”

An overview of the results in Cornwell's study. Source: Association of Consumer Research

You may have seen Bettina Cornwell’s ideas sprinkled throughout other stories. Here’s the full transcript of her interview with We, the T-shirt.

Q: What’s your own individual experience with the t-shirt? How did you become the t-shirt person’ at University of Michigan?

A: I worked on the consumer research paper on ritual about t-shirts as ritual objects. One of my major streams of research is on corporate sponsorship: sports, entertainment, arts and charity. One of the things that you’ll typically find at a sponsored event is the t-shirt to commemorate the event for you and that’s part of the ritual discussion. So, a lot of times you have people buying Olympic t-shirts when they go to the Olympics and they get a Komen Foundation Breast Cancer Research Race For the Cure t-shirt if they run in the race. [There were] cute t-shirts for men, at one point they had the ‘Breast Friends’ for cancer t-shirts. And my take on t-shirts as ritual objects is a bit related to that research and this idea that you want to commemorate and to remember events that are important to you. T-shirts are utter collectible objects but you don’t really go around with your set of matchbooks or you know whatever you’ve collected, but t-shirts allow you to say “Oh I went to the Bahamas last month” or whatever you want to tell people.

Q: What is the allure of the free t-shirt? Why do people do things they normally wouldn’t (i.e. sign up for a credit card, participate in buffalo wing eating contest) just to get a free shirt or mug etc.?

A: I think the overall phenomenon of people willing to do things for a premium (a marketing premium)..It’s difficult isn’t it, it’s sort of irrational. People will eat more than they should because a deal is offered to them, [they’ll] buy more product than they need. They feel like they’re getting a deal or they feel like they’re getting something “for free” would be my assay of why a t-shirt works so well. I think also, sometimes at least, getting a free t-shirt, which was in the Association of Consumer Research article…In that paper the research would talk about a ritual like participating in a buffalo wing eating contest is fun and you get a free t-shirt that’s sort of silly or crazy and it’s part of a ritual—a way of socializing with another person and sort of tell them what you’re about.

Q: There are conflicting arguments about the origins of the t-shirt. Where do you believe it originated?

A: I don’t have any information on the t-shirt as we now know it. I think pretty much everyone agrees it began somewhere as an undergarment and then its popularity has essentially skyrocketed because our society has become so casual. And we don’t dress up like we used to do anything…and with that comes the tracksuits and jeans and sort of everything else that goes with the t-shirt.

Q: Has the t-shirt had a causal role in making our society more casual?

A: In our movement toward casual that wearing a t-shirt is sort of an artifact, not a causal factor. How much more casual can you get than walking around in your underwear, right? Pajamas are even somewhat more formal than underwear. So, no, I think it didn’t make the trend but it certainly has ridden on it. I don’t think it’s the source of change but certainly is an artifact of change. You can see that people are wearing t-shirts, but the move toward casual [culture] is precipitated by the t-shirt becoming popular somehow.

Q: How is it that American society has become more casual then?

A: Well, particularly in the United States I think we’re, for example, more casual than the Europeans are. Off the top of my head, I would probably say it has maybe something to do with the fact that we at least profess being more egalitarian or hoping for everyone having an opportunity to make whatever they want with their lives. The truth of the matter is we have gaps and gulfs in the differences between people in their socioeconomic standings. But we have this idea that you can be anyone, you can self-create lends itself to finding your fashion or whatever else. Whereas, deciding to have more historic and structured requirements for the latter we would have more formalized clothing.

Q: The t-shirt started out as men’s underwear and is now considered a basic for both men and women. How did we get from that point to where we are now?

A: Americans in the main, while there are a few who will suffer for fashion, they like to be comfortable and t-shirts are inherently comfortable. And I think also they’re expressive for both men and women in the sense that you can have a logo or picture or a slogan on a t-shirt that expresses an aspect of self-identity and the potential to do that is there for both genders.

Q: Screen prints have made t-shirts into walking billboards and allowed companies, sports teams, bands and designers to get people to tout their name brands. As our culture has changed, how has that been reflected in the t-shirt?

A: The marketers see the t-shirt as a potential, as you say, walking billboard or premium that people will wear and that can communicate brand information. So they might like to make it as affordable as possible as another path for communication. So that relationship is easy to see.

Now why are people willing to do this? Well, brands function as chunks of information so you can tell something about yourself rather succinctly through a brand name, like you’re the type of person that would drive a Mercedes, BMW a Toyota, whatever. You’re the type of person that would attend a rodeo event or attend a baseball event. So you communicate aspects of your lifestyle and personality that is obviously useful for single individuals meeting other single individuals who might have shared interests. I think often that’s helpful for young people who are socializing and trying to meet other people who might be like-minded. It’s up and down the age spectrum. My father has one that’s funny and talks about Santa Clause and he feels quite good wearing that one. So I think people find that the brand expressions are succinct in communicating versus a self-prepared slogan or self-prepared picture. I mean there’s a lot of that around as well, but brand names do a lot of work very efficiently if you will.

Q: When you say brand names are you talking about something that is a designer or something that’s a Hanes or Fruit of the Loom type of t-shirt, or an American Apparel t-shirt?

A: When I say brands I certainly mean brands like Aeropostale, Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister. But I also mean the t-shirt as a premium. Something that has the Lego brand name for children or has a Lego character on it or has a brand relationship to a movie. So if you really, really think Harry Potter is cool, and you’ve read all the books backwards and forwards five times, and you’ve seen every movie and you can quote scenes from the movie, it fits with your personal identity to wear a t-shirt with the brand information from the movie. It’s not that the t-shirt itself—the fabric, the fashion statement t-shirt from one of the retailers—but more that the t-shirt is being used as the medium for the brand and being used by the consumer as [conveying] information about themselves to others.

Q: Do you think people are conscious that they are playing a pretty large role in this hyper-capitalist-consumer method?

A: I think there are people that are and I think there people that are less aware. I think there are people that care, I think there are people that don’t. My daughter will go to some destructive distance to cut a brand name out of a piece of clothing because she’s just so anti-brand. Whereas, my 13-year-old will be more than happy to wear a brand that identifies with his personality. I think if there was an iTouch t-shirt out there he’d wear it.

Q: What do you think gets people to that point where they say “I am absolutely not going to indicate that I am wearing someone else’s name or somebody else’s brand”?

A: People want to buy a piece of clothing that is functional to them or that is visually aesthetic. They don’t want to feel painted into a corner to also promote that brand name. That lack of choice is important in some people’s decision-making.

People will certainly wear shirts that express other kinds of meanings. If you have an interest in solar energy, you might attend a solar energy event and wear the t-shirt. So, it’s not only brands, it’s not only hyper-consumerism. It also can be a public policy statement, an environmental statement. It can be a lot of things that are on a t-shirt. I think it’s a broader discussion than only hyper-commercial in terms of self-expression. People want to tell others about their thinking and their value set.

Q: Do you have a favorite t-shirt? Do you wear them on a regular basis?

A: I wear t-shirts to the gym for a workout. I have a t-shirt that, in the literature, is a collectible item, which I’ve removed from use (one definition for adults for collecting is to remove something from use.) When I presented that paper on t-shirts, one of the things that I did is print up some t-shirts because it was about t-shirts (it was a few like 9-10 of them) and took them to my session and they were incredibly popular because people liked to commemorate being at the conference as a popular one. So that’s one. I did my own graphic art on it and had it screen printed.

Q: How do you define collecting?

A: The definition of collecting easily can include that you have a goal-collecting behavior and you have a categorization scheme in mind and you collect objects whatever they may be—wristwatches, t-shirts, plates—and adult collectors at times will remove those objects from use. Child collectors may continue to use those collectible items.

Q: And the collectible item you have is this t-shirt from this conference?

A: Yes, it’s a collectible item because I’ve taken it and removed it from use. Another one that is in my collection is one that I got from the Russian embassy when I visited Russia.

Q: Why do you keep it around?

A: It’s very old now. It’s beigey. It has the onion dome on it. It’s a unique t-shirt, there’s not many of them around and again it’s commemorating or recognizing a period when I was doing something very different like traveling around Russia on a cultural exchange program with the University of Texas when I was getting my PhD.

Q: How do you think t-shirts have become such popular items of clothing? How many do you think are produced in the U.S.?

A: It’s whopping. I have no idea of the actual number. I do think there are t-shirts that are produced and are actually wasted and there are are far more t-shirts in the solid waste stream than there should be. Just because we can afford financially to print up t-shirts for every event that happens doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

Q: T-shirts have made a huge impact with sports teams and some people claim that sports fans can be just as bad as fashion victims. What is the effect of the interplay among sports, t-shirts and promoting?

A: T-shirts with names of teams on them allow us to communicate that we’re part of a group. This refers back to the research on tribalism. So we have now looser community relations overall in the United States. You don’t depend on others in your community quite as much as you did about a hundred years ago. I think that people are interested in having that connectivity and having a sense of community. Sometimes that’s rallied around brands, sometimes around sports team. There are things in the marketing literature called brand communities.

So people for example go to a Jeep jamboree and they are all Jeep owners and Jeep drivers. The same thing with sports teams, you’ve got, in a sense, an “extended self.” It’s more than just you, you’re part of a group, you have something in common with other people, you’re part of a community.

Q: And the t-shirt serves that function?

A: Moreover, you’re in a restaurant and you’re eating alone and you have your Lakers shirt on. Somebody can come up to you and say, “Hey Go Lakers,” and you say “Are you a Lakers fan, too?” “Yeah! Well, I live here!…blah, blah, blah.” So it’s a way to contact with an otherwise anonymous community. So on certain levels you join groups and you become part of various communities and you can communicate that membership on a t-shirt.

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.