Twenty-seven year old Joe Abdelnour sits in his bedroom in Long Beach, Calif. playing Yahoo backgammon and crawling Facebook for status updates on a Monday afternoon. He is wearing boxer shorts and a blue t-shirt, which he got from a work benefit before he was laid off, screened with a white golf ball and cancer ribbon.
Abdelnour hasn’t thought much about who designed, marketed, or printed the t-shirts he owns, nor their history going back to European nobility and soldiers in World War II. He represents a typical American…but one who has built his wardrobe from freebies. Out of the 40-some t-shirts he owns, he says he easily obtained 35 of them gratis.
The t-shirt gave rise to the lifestyle clothing brands that solely use knit fabrics like Splendid, Ella Moss, James Perse, Rachel Pally and Michael Stars, all of whom are based in Los Angeles. On a more basic level, Hanes, Champion and Fruit of the Loom have made their way into most Americans’ closets more easily than the high-end designers. One study found that nearly 79 percent of Americans are likely to hang on to an old t-shirt. But what speaks to more people is the possibility of getting a t-shirt for free.
Abdelnour is proud of his little collection, “I sound like a real catch right now,” he jokes. His free t-shirts are folded neatly in a wooden chest of drawers nearby and the nicer ones he owns that display Puma and soccer logos hang in his closet. He says he likes folding his shirt because when he folds them he remembers the funny stories about how he got them free of charge. He cares little that he promoted things that have come and gone–fad products, club openings, candy bars and walks for a cure. It’s only fair if he gets something out of it. In most cases, that something is a t-shirt.
“The overall phenomenon of people willing to do things for a premium is sort of irrational,” said Bettina Cornwell, a marketing expert at the University of Michigan, who authored the study “T-Shirts As Wearable Diaries: An Examination of Artifact Consumption and Garnering Related to Life Events.”
“People will eat more than they should because a deal is offered to them [or 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.”
Abdelnour posts a comment on his friend’s Facebook status. When asked why he collected so many he simply laughs and says, “because it’s a t-shirt and it covers me when needed.”
Honolulu-based t-shirt blogger Coty Gonzales, 28, started reviewing t-shirts in 2008 and has developed a following of t-shirt enthusiasts online since. He said more than $3,000-worth of t-shirts have been sent to him to review in the past year and a half and he owns close to 200 t-shirts himself.
“The key word is free,” Gonzales said. “It’s something that [people] find to be useful and/or something that they could easily give away to someone else. Who says no to free stuff? I don’t, especially if it is of use to me.”
Each individual has his or her own reason for donning a specific t-shirt. However, Gonzales believes that free t-shirts that commemorate events, souvenir tees and others that have been written off and crumpled away into a corner of our closets don’t make as much of a lifestyle statement as the t-shirts we pay for.
“If I see someone wearing a Sean John T-Shirt, I know they like hip hop,” Gonzales said. “If I see someone wearing an Ed Hardy shirt then I automatically assume that they are high-maintenance since they don’t mind spending $100 on a single t-shirt. A simple white t-shirt tells me that you’re either a modernist with an eye for style or [you] work in manual labor. A Quicksilver t-shirt tells me that you like surfing, skateboarding, extreme sports. The t-shirt is an easy way to let people know who you are, without actually saying it.”
Today, the t-shirt is a wardrobe staple and a comfy alternative to dressing up in a decreasingly buttoned-up society. It’s fitted, multi-colored and can be worn with just about anything. And because it appeals to so many, people will continue to buy them.
“In our movement toward casual, wearing a t-shirt is sort of an artifact. How much more casual can you get than walking around in your underwear, right?” Cornwell said. “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 is precipitated by the t-shirt becoming popular somehow.”
So what’s next for the t-shirt? FIDM fashion expert Christina Johnson believes going green by using sustainable fabrics and recycling vintage tees will make a comeback.
“Anything is fashion now. Anything, any garment that is a means of self-expression or a cultural reference is fashion. Is it haute couture? No. But it is fashion,” Johnson asserted. “[Fashion is]something that changes constantly and morphs.”