It’s difficult to imagine a world without visible branding on people’s clothing, but it really wasn’t so long ago when citizens never walked around advertising tennis shoes and football teams on their torsos. T-shirts only became fashionable as outer wear around the 1950s (encouraged, so the legend goes, by Marlon Brando’s dressing like a slob in A Streetcar Named Desire), and then only of the plain, white variety. Predictably enough, one of the earliest pioneers of silkscreen branding was Walt Disney, who used t-shirts to help spread the contagion of his Mickey Mouse Club and Davy Crocket TV shows. But this sort of cult uniform was relegated to children for many years.
The Sixties saw the t-shirt, with obligatory anti-establishment slogans, associated with the general tastelessness of hippie fashions, considered by the Whiney Majority to be both immature and slovenly. However, because said establishment never saw a counterculture it couldn’t exploit, smelly hippie couture was soon in vogue with the mainstream, including the human bumper sticker trend of the t-shirt.
Some of the earliest examples of mass-branded t-shirt advertising for adults were, not surprisingly, from cigarette and beer companies. When I was a kid my father used to come home with Marlboro shirts given away by the guy who stocked the cigarette machines (remember those?). Can you guess which brand of cigarette I got addicted to in my teen years? Once the idea of wearing a corporate logo on your chest was accepted (my recollection is that it was embraced immediately), it was a virtual brandapalooza. Growing up in this era meant that anything that entered my childhood consciousness (i.e. - anything that was on TV that season) could be celebrated with a t-shirt purchase. My favorites were the plastic iron-on designs with the glitter around the edges, which could be easily wiped clean with a moist towelette should you accidentally dribble mustard onto the face of Darth Vader or Henry Winkler. Tron t-shirts seem to work especially well in that format.
(Or that dreamy Shaun Cassidy.)
Today, try to spot anyone in a crowd who DOESN’T have a logo or pop culture icon on some part of their clothing (if not on every article). People seem downright boastful about their cultural role as passive consumers, and they will happily – PROUDLY become walking billboards for Pepsi, Cookie Monster or the Miami Dolphins. They’ll advertise Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren or Miley Cyrus on their chests and asses every day. But you’ll never see anyone wearing a t-shirt featuring their own name.
(Except, ironically, people who are on television.)
And now, the idea of publicly expressing one’s brand loyalty is so ingrained that modern youngsters have taken the next logical step of having Nike Swooshes and Pillsbury Doughboys tattooed directly on their bodies. Tattoos, traditionally, are meant to signify tribal affiliation, religious devotion, or loyalty to some fraternity like the Hell’s Angels or the KISS Army. But when asked why he would submit to the painful and irreversible procedure today, the modern twentysomething will likely reply, “I dunno. I just like Oreos.”
(She meant more to me than mama ever did.)
I will confess that, in the course of deciding which t-shirt design I wanted Brando to sport, I found one t-shirt I'd like to have: http://cool-tee-shirts.com/2007/06/20/7/