Originally the uniform (quite literally) of the working class, T-shirts have come a long way from their humble roots. Designer T-shirts can now be worth upwards of $750, and few catwalk collections are complete without this staple item. But how did this former under-garment take such a decadent turn?
The first T-shirts were issued as underwear for the US Navy in the first World War. In 1920, the term was coined for the first time by Scott Fitzgerald in his novel This Side of Paradise, and by the 1940s T-shirts were considered a wardrobe staple in many American high schools. But it was only in the 1950s that the T-shirt became an acceptable form of day-wear by the wider public, after being pushed into the public's imagination by the heartthrobs of the day. Marlon Brando's smoldering turn as Stanley in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' gave the T-shirt sex appeal, and it was quickly adopted by musicians, and then advertising agencies.
Throughout the following decades, the T-shirt was a blank canvas, used to project many of the political and social movements of the times. From 60's psychedelic tie-dye to the politically charged T-shirts of the '70s and '80s, Vivienne Westwood's punk aesthetic. The rise of athleisure and luxury streetwear in the 1990s served to push the concept of a premium T-shirt even further into fashion's consciousness, with many fashion labels now collaborating with sportswear brands. Indeed, T-shirts now play a crucial role in any fashion house's collection. As handbags have become more expensive, T-shirts are considered the new entry-level purchase - a way for consumers to own a piece of the brand without shelling out on the prohibitively expensive ready-to-wear lines. These T-shirts are then forced into artificial scarcity by brands, with buyers given caps on how many they can order. Some labels even require buyers to order a certain quantity of the more expensive ready-to-wear (and harder to sell) to access these popular purchases.
Retailers have discovered that shoppers are willing to pay around $380 on average for a luxury T-shirt, a markup that has not gone unnoticed by brands. Not only that but in an age of social media, an instantly recognizable logo on a graphic T-shirt acts as easy advertising. The push for instantly visible branding on social media is also posited as one of the reasons that traditional luxury brands are embracing the move towards streetwear - and with it, the T-shirt.
This trend shows no sign of slowing down, with streetwear designer Virgil Abloh appointed an artistic director of Louis Vuitton, and Ralph Lauren collaborating with iconic streetwear brand Palace. Luxury brands have even started following streetwear brand's operating model - creating one-off items and "drops" to raise the appeal of traditionally low-key pieces, like T-shirts, even higher. After all, what feels more luxurious than owning something that everyone else wants, even if it is a simple cotton undergarment?
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