Scarecrow and Brando and Tees–Oh My!
Pop quiz: The graphic t-shirt’s first on-screen appearance featured
A. Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire
B. James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause
C. Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz
Trick question, right? The correct answer is (C), Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy and her entourage first arrived in Emerald City, they required a little “clean up” at the Wash and Brush Up Company. There, Scarecrow was re-stuffed by workers wearing green t-shirts emblazoned with the word OZ. Copyright prevents me from displaying the scene here, but you’ll find it in the musical number “The Merry Old Land of Oz” on YouTube. I’ve read that the OZ t-shirts were offered as promotional products when the movie was first released, but I’ve been unable to find any sales records or photos of those shirts.
The yellow brick road led not to the Emerald City, but to Hollywood, and the pot of gold Over the Rainbow is revealed to be collectible t-shirts worth five figures. This Scarecrow shirt sold for $45 in December 2016.
T-shirts had been used as work apparel for a couple of decades before the 1939 debut of The Wizard of Oz. In 1913, short-sleeved crew neck t-shirts were issued as standard gear by the U.S. Navy. The Army promptly followed suit. The popular underwear soon became outerwear and was embraced by civilian laborers – farmers, mechanics, miners, longshoremen, and anyone who worked a dirty, sweaty job. T-shirts were cheap (79 cents in the Sears catalog), easy to clean, and made from lightweight cotton. In 1920, Miriam-Webster took note of the trend by including the word “t-shirt” in their American English dictionary.
Graphic tees were in limited use by 1942 when Life magazine’s July 13, 1942 cover featured Corporal Alexander Le Gerda wearing a t-shirt decorated with an Air Corps Gunnery School design.
Graphic tees were in limited use by 1942 when Life magazine’s July 13, 1942 cover featured Corporal Alexander Le Gerda wearing a t-shirt decorated with an Air Corps Gunnery School design. In 1948, Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey brought t-shirts into the political arena for the first time with his “Dew it with Dewey” campaign shirt. T-shirts were viewed as a perfect advertising medium; literally, they were walking billboards. A few years after Dewey’s loss to Truman, Marlon Brando set the teen fashion world on its heels with his form-fitting t-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire. The year following the release of Streetcar, (1951) teens drove t-shirt sales to $180 million. Tees became firmly ensconced as the definitive teenage fashion statement.
As screen printing and ink technology improved, t-shirt designs became more colorful and complex. In the early 1950s, two Miami based companies – Tropix Togs and Sherry Manufacturing – began printing souvenir shirts for Florida resorts. Tropix Togs acquired exclusive rights from Walt Disney Co. to print and distribute Disney characters on t-shirts. At the same time, colleges, universities, and pro sports teams found that there was money to be made licensing their logos, and every campus bookstore stocked a line of school-branded outerwear.
Marlon Brando set the teen fashion world on its heels with his form-fitting t-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire. The year following the release of Streetcar, (1951) teens drove t-shirt sales to $180 million.
Then came the Rock n’ Roll revolution of the1960s: The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and countless other musical acts toured the country. Virtually every concert venue offered souvenir t-shirts. T-shirt specialty retailers popped up from coast to coast, and nearly every flea market had a t-shirt seller. Tourist destinations got on board as well; most towns had a branded t-shirt. Everyone jumped on the t-shirt bandwagon; by the 1970s, the phrase “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” was part of the popular lexicon.
Over the years, t-shirts have become a sort of “default collectible.” Forbes Magazine reports a survey conducted by online t-shirt manufacturer CustomInk that indicates 87% of Americans who wear t-shirts have at least one they refuse to throw away for sentimental reasons. In analyzing their survey data, CustomInk consulted with Jennifer Baumgartner, author of You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. Remarked Baumgartner: “The T-shirt speaks to us on so many levels. It’s utilitarian, it’s affordable, it’s customizable, it’s not gender specific, it’s not season specific, it’s not even functionally specific. We can wear it with a ball gown or you can wear it throwing baseballs.”
In 2006, Heritage Auctions sold this plain, white t-shirt worn by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause for $11,352.
Hoarding favorite t-shirts may account for the steady supply of vintage graphic t-shirts that regularly hit the resale market. In 2006, Heritage Auctions sold the plain, white t-shirt worn by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause for $11,352. The shirt was in “excellent condition with mild discoloration due to age.” In May 2017, a rather mundane-looking tee from the Clint Eastwood movie Every Which Way But Loose brought $25,000 on eBay. In April 2018, a 1988 Harley Davidson Road Rebel T-Shirt brought $10,300 on eBay. The auction description described the shirt as being in “30 years old condition is heavily worn in, silky soft, thin semi see thru, with small holes” (sic). Someone really wanted that shirt, to buy it with holes!
In May 2017, a rather mundane-looking tee from the Clint Eastwood movie Every Which Way But Loose brought $25,000 on eBay.
To say that the t-shirt business is brisk is an understatement: as of this writing, there are almost 24 million (23,595,619) current t-shirt listings on eBay alone (new and vintage) for the search term “t shirt.” In the past 90 days, 3,900,684 t-shirt auctions have closed, with nearly a million shirts sold (980,021) for roughly a 25% sell-through rate. Not all sold for thousands of dollars, of course; the highest sold price was $17,500, and lowest price was a penny. An overwhelming majority of shirts are priced in an “affordable” range.
Do you have a t-shirt tucked away in a drawer? Look it up on eBay and see how much it might bring. Who knows? You might have a winner.
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s blog at SellMoreAntiques.com.
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