The T-shirt turns 100 - what's it worth?


Bob Geldof and Midge Ure

T-shirts entered the world in bulk in 1913, when they were issued to Navy recruits in the US to wear under their uniforms. By 1920 they entered the dictionary, and in the 1930s they started to move beyond the world of practical cheap clothes and into fashion, music and politics.

But what is the T-shirt worth?

Century of growth

The story of the rise and rise of the t-shirt is told on, which credits a combination of Hollywood icons and print development with popularising the t-shirt in the 1940s and 50s.

Since then they have become a wardrobe staple in the UK as well as the US, and the growth of affordable shirts over the past 25 years has cemented their position. At the moment, around $2 billion worth of T-shirts are sold around the world every year.

More than fashion

Nowadays t-shirts are more than clothes. They are ways to support your favourite band or brand; they are ways to raise money for charity; they are a statement about how fashionable, funny or geeky you are; and when they are customised they say something about your individuality. A survey for Blue Cotton found that 80% of people have an attachment to at least one old t-shirt.

It means we don't just buy t-shirts because we need something to wear, we buy them because we have something to say. And because we don't want to say the same thing every day, we buy hundreds of them over our lifetime. In fact, 62% of people own more than ten T-shirts at any one time.

But what are T-shirts worth to the economy?

The British fashion industry is worth a total of £21 billion in retail, wholesale and manufacture. It employs 816,000 people directly, which makes up 2.8% of total employment in the UK.

Major retailers make much of the money. The average price of a budget T-shirt comes in at between £2 and £10, and falls into the bracket of fast-fashion, which is piled high, sold cheap and fashionable for a very short period of time. The average person buys around one item of clothing a week, and T-shirts are a major slice of that spending.

Some T-shirts transcend commodity purchasing. A designer brand like Diesel, G Star Marc Newson or Levi can easily charge £70 for a T-shirt. Clearly retailers only take a small slice of the price in profit, but at £70, the T-shirt no longer becomes a low margin, high volume commodity, and can start to pull in good retail profits.


Football T-shirts are also a major slice of clothing retail. Manchester United alone sells 1.4 million official replica shirts globally every year. It was football shirt sales at the beginning of the 2012/2013 season which were credited with avoiding a collapse in spending as the Olympics and Jubilee effects faded.

There are also a number of smaller businesses making a small fortune between them, customising T-shirts, printing small batches of their own designs, and selling them online or at local markets. One brand that started this way in the US is Threadless, which runs T-shirt designing competitions, prints the winning designs and sells them. The company takes more than $30 million a year.

It seems, therefore, that in the past 100 years, T-shirts have become a global fashion phenomenon, which are incredibly important both to the UK high street and small creative businesses operating on and off line. It's not a bad rise to fame for what started life as basically a vest for sailors.

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