THE HISTORY OF GRAPHIC TEES AND HOW BRANDS LIKE COCA-COLA AND NASA CAPITALIZE ON THEIR INFLUENCE TO INCREASE BRAND RECOGNITION AMONG FANS AND CONSUMERS
At the intersection of marketing and fashion lies the graphic T-shirt — an avenue for people to become walking billboards for their favorite popular brands. From celebrity influence to direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing strategy, the graphic tee offers much for companies with established branding.
The evolution of the tee unveils its transformation from a humble, plain undershirt to a vibrant and expressive garment that now appears in wardrobes worldwide.
From Plain Undershirts to Rebellious Graphic Tees
Although brief, the history of the tee plays a significant role in understanding why so many brands use them to market to consumers today. What used to be a drab white undershirt is now a colorful and expressive garment universal to wardrobes around the globe.
The first appearance of tees in American history dates back to the 1800s when factory workers cut the pants and sleeves off their jumpsuits. What started as a way to stay cool in summer became an iconic clothing trend. In 1913 the U.S. Navy designated the clothing item as the official undergarment for its soldiers. P.H. Hanes Knitting Company, now known as Hanes, and other companies like Fruit of the Loom started mass-producing undershirts.
The first documented appearance of a graphic tee was in “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939, when actors sported green tees with Oz written across the front. Despite their brief appearance, graphic tees were not widespread until the late 1940s. Wearing plain white tees as anything other than undershirts was still taboo. This perspective changed when acclaimed actors Marlon Brando and James Dean appeared on-screen wearing basic white tees. The exposure from the cult movies “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Rebel Without a Cause” signaled to the general public that wearing standalone undershirts was now acceptable and even cool.
Many people started to notice the tee’s rise in popularity as an opportunity. In 1948, Thomas Dewey created a graphic tee with text that read, “Dew it with Dewey,” to promote his U.S. presidential campaign. The now-defunct company Tropix Togs obtained a license to print Disney’s Mickey Mouse on tees kickstarting the trend of putting iconic logos on tees. These campaigns popularized the graphic tee as a fashion trend and a marketing tactic in one fell swoop.
As the 1970s approached, people moved away from the mainstream and started associating the graphic tee with rebellion. With the invention of screen printing, designing customized tees became more accessible, creating a medium for the time’s political, social, and cultural messages. Painters and airbrush artists capitalized on this and began using tees as a canvas for artwork and powerful statements. As Americans leveraged the tee as a radical tool, its power became more apparent.
In the 1990s, graphic tees became a marketing tool for clothing designers, food and drink companies, television shows, and any company wanting to get their brand on the public. With a graphic tee, brands and companies can build brand awareness or evoke nostalgia in the masses.
How Pop Culture Popularized the Iconic Graphic Tee
Some of today’s most iconic graphic tees are infamous because of movie features, celebrity influence, or simply good music. Many brands like Nike, Addidas, Levi’s, and Calvin Klein can attribute their incomparable brand recognition to clothing like tees. Coca-Cola, NASA, and Harley Davidson logos appear on graphic tees sold at Walmart, Target, and other stores worldwide. The power of tees would be null without the contribution of pop culture.
Famous Tees from Movie Features
The film industry has and continues to influence American pop culture, especially its fashion. Similarly to the characters who made the plain white tee a hot commodity in the 1950s, modern-day film and television characters have inspired fashion’s most iconic graphic tees through the ages.
The grey Mumford Physical Education tee became popular in the 1980s after Eddie Murphy’s character Alex Foley wore it in “Beverly Hills Cop.” In 2004, after the release of the movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” the graphic ringer tee with “Vote for Pedro” printed on the front rose to fame.
Celebrity Influence on Graphic Tees
Over the decades, celebrities have convinced millions to rock various graphic tees simply by wearing them out in public. After a breakup with Justin Timberlake in 2004, Brittney Spears modeled a baby blue tee with the phrase “dump him” printed in orange on the front. T-shirt companies still produce replicas of this design today.
When making a political statement, graphic tees are the go-to, especially for celebrities who paparazzi constantly photograph. In 2017 Dior released a tee with the phrase “We should all be feminists” printed on the front. Many stars like Karlie Kloss, A$AP Rocky, and Winona Ryder wore it to support the feminist movement. A percentage of the proceeds from the release went to Rihanna’s non-profit organization, the Clara Lionel Foundation.
The Iconic Graphic Tee
The 1970s made graphic band tees an everlasting staple in American fashion. Once bands realized that their fans enjoyed sporting their band logo on tees, it became common practice in the industry.
People recognize many bands by their logos just as much as their music. Some of the most undying graphic tees sport the following bands’ logos or album covers:
● The Rolling Stones
● The Beatles
● Pink Floyd
● Led Zeppelin
● Grateful Dead
● Wu-Tang Clan
Big Brands Dominating the Graphic Tee Trend
Many often forget that big brands contribute to pop culture, as well. Few brands consistently dominate the graphic tee trend through the decades, like Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson, and NASA.
In the 1980s, in partnership with Tommy Hilfiger, Coca-Cola launched a rugby shirt with its logo. Many coveted the shirt, kicking off Coca-Cola’s persistent presence in the graphic tee world. The company’s many brands have become a go-to for companies who mass produce graphic tees. Coca-Cola has successfully cemented Coke, Sprite, and Fanta in American fashion.
Harley Davidson’s rise to fame in the graphic tee industry started in the 1950s. The company prioritized functionality and ease of wear when it launched leather jackets for both men and women. Alongside the rise of the popularity of tees in the 1970s, Harley Davidson released branded tees. By 1992, the brand found its way into the mass market, producing more designs and styles of tees for the public.
NASA is another quintessential brand whose logo appeared on graphic tees everywhere seemingly overnight. What first made the brand logo a popular feature on clothing wasn’t the graphic tee but its collaboration with the designer handbag company Coach. After launching the collection in 2017, thousands of brands saw the logo’s potential. Plus, unlike other notorious brand logos, NASA can’t license its logo because it is a government agency making it accessible for public use. NASA graphic tees appear in numerous online clothing stores and local and national chain clothing and department stores.
Graphic Tee Marketing is the Ultimate Hack for Any Brand
Most fans would happily rock a graphic tee featuring a brand or band logo they enjoy. What makes Coca-Cola, Nirvana, and Nike graphic tees so impressive is their ability to influence the general public, not just fans, to wear their logos. Graphic tees embody a brand’s culture, success, and popularity on one garment, making them more than just clothing. These brands’ logos have gained them a high status in American fashion trends.
Given the graphic tee’s power, it is no surprise that many DTC companies look to produce branded clothing to increase awareness and recognition of their products. The trend has become a popular marketing strategy with great success. Although not on the same level as Coca-Cola in popularity, Wonder Valley, Fishwife, and Chamberlain Coffee are well on their way to achieving streetwear status. Their distinctive logos embroidered or screen printed on high-quality tees are irresistible to even the most casual of fans.
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