T-Shirts As Wearable Diary: an Examination of Artifact Consumption and Garnering Related to Life Events

T. Bettina Cornwell, Memphis State University
ABSTRACT - This paper utilizes recently introduced perspectives of consumer theorists to examine the consumption of T-shirts. This artifact is examined with regard to cultural meaning, ritual behavior, primitive behavior, and consumption symbolism. Additionally, an inventory of five T-shirt diaries is made.
[ to cite ]:
T. Bettina Cornwell (1990) ,"T-Shirts As Wearable Diary: an Examination of Artifact Consumption and Garnering Related to Life Events", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 375-379.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 375-379


T. Bettina Cornwell, Memphis State University


This paper utilizes recently introduced perspectives of consumer theorists to examine the consumption of T-shirts. This artifact is examined with regard to cultural meaning, ritual behavior, primitive behavior, and consumption symbolism. Additionally, an inventory of five T-shirt diaries is made.

I sat quietly in the afternoon sun at Shultz's while Allyson, artfully decoded the complex of social symbols and wearable artifacts surrounding us. She continued:

"And that fellow there, the one with the T-shirt of Nixon that reads 'He's Tan, Rested and Ready for 1988."'

I nodded.

"He is a biker, a bicycle biker not a motor biker, ready to have fun and at the same time very serious about his sport."

"And the one next to him, the one with the St. Paulie Girl T-shirt. He's into financial security -- I mean you can always plan on going Dutch."

"What about Mr. Executive that just hit the door?" Lee leaned over to question.

"Oh him, I don't know what he's up to today but he has an ultimate tanning machine and T-shirts from every Hard Rock Cafe he's ever been to.'


There is a considerable amount of scholarship devoted to the study of garments worn by individuals. Fortunately for those of us who would examine the consumption and rituals associated with clothing, Holman (1980) offers an excellent review of relevant literature. Holman reports that some researchers have focused on the theme of fashion cycle and aspects of economic or conspicuous consumption, while other sociopsychological researchers have studied the importance and function of clothing in the culture. It is this second approach to understanding clothing which this paper follows.

Sociopsychological researchers view clothing as more than utilitarian. Here are some conclusions about the cultural function of clothing:

-The function of clothing within the community is to designate the individual (as to sex, age, social status, occupation etc.) Yoder (1972).

-Clothing usage is an expression of personality, of self (Rosenfeld and Plax 1977).

-Dress provides a link with other individuals in festive, ceremonial and everyday activities (Roach and Eicher 1973).

T-shirt consumption and garnering is first examined with regard to recently introduced perspectives of consumer theorists. This artifact is uniquely qualified as a subject for study because of its tremendous meaning carrying capacity. It is acknowledged that other social objects (e.g., jackets and hats) can function in a similar capacity. The T-shirt is chosen as subject here because of its pervasiveness in the society and unisex nature.

This study then examines T-shirts as carriers of cultural meaning for five individual cases. The study is limited to T-shirts and sweatshirts with words or slogans and pictures that have some intention to communicate overtly. The interest here is in clothing that has communication as a primary function.

The Spirituality of T-shirts

Hirschman (1985) challenges both the stereotype of North Americans as possessed by a secular consumption ethic and the separate treatment of the natural and supernatural with regard to consuming behavior. In defending the spirituality of some American consumption patterns Hirschman turns to the work of Czikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1982). These authors agree that consumers invest psychic energy in personal possessions and that the more that energy is invested in the objects over a lifetime, the more those objects come to transcend their mundane origins and embody personal meaning.

Czikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1982) find that despite elevated standards of living, meaning, not material possessions is the ultimate goal of our lives. The T-shirt, as cultural artifact, serves as an illustrative example of our search for meaning. T-shirts have a very limited material value and rarely appreciate in economic value; however, they provide a unique symbol of self-definition.

Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1982) describe a person who strives for self-definition as a person who emanates or displays symbols of the self-definitional essences that are then potentially reacted to by the community. According to Wicklund and Gollwitzer, symbols can be blatant, such as the positive self-description: "I am fluent in Spanish" or they may be more subtle such as associating with Spanish speakers. Regardless of their character, the "purpose of the symbol as it has evolved is to stir up a readiness in the community to respond to the symbol" (Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982, p. 5). This purpose is certainly true of the T-shirt

T-shirts as Labels Of Cultural Category

Contemporary North American culture has been described as having cultural categories which are more or less elective (McCracken 1986). This elective quality, as described by McCracken, means that the North American society "permits its members to declare, at their own discretion, the cultural categories they presently occupy" (1986, p.72). This self proclaiming is in contrast to other cultures where categories are more rigid and where belonging to a category is not a matter of choice. McCracken goes on to say: "Social groups can seek to change their place in the categorical scheme, while marketers can seek to establish or encourage a new cultural category of person (e.g., the teenager, the 'yuppie') in order to create a new market segment."

The T-shirt is unique in its ability to supply a label to a cultural category (e.g., "49er," "Native Floridian"). Even more importantly, individuals can, in a moments notice, change their proclamation of cultural category by changing their external symbols. This chameleon aspect of American culture is made possible in part by marketers who make you one of the group through promotional T-shirt deals and give-aways. Proclamations of cultural category may or may not be accepted by the society but the opportunity to wear symbols of choice exists nevertheless and just like the lizard, it may be discovered that one is not really part of the branch

T-shirts In Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are rituals that center on the social observance of events that symbolically mark an individual's social status changes (Rook 1985). T-shirts in some instances have become widely accepted ritual artifacts. For example, the "class Or' T-shirt which lists all the names of the graduating class of a particular high school is worn by those who will take part in the graduation rite of passage. In a society where formal events commemorating the adolescent initiation into adulthood are observed less and less often, the participation in and evidence of informal rites of passage take on greater importance. Rook (1985) recognizes the heavy metal concert as a cosmology-based ritual in that for its audience it may have a spiritually elevating effect.

Concert attendance whether heavy metal, punk rock or new age has certain norms associated with it that bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood. Some concerts require attendants to be of a certain age in order to better police restricted beverage consumption. Perhaps more importantly, music has the most unusual capacity to date an individual. Music (and the T-shirts representing the groups and individuals that produced it) "belongs" to those who came of age while that music was popular. This is not to say that one cannot enjoy the music of any period but rather that ownership of an original Woodstock T-shirt may reflect on perceptions of your age at social gatherings.

T-shirts as Trophies

As a species, humans throughout history have been fond of bringing home souvenirs of conquests. Savage warriors of the head-hunting type returned from the hunt with fragments of the human enemy and were proud of these trophies which represented prowess in-war (Verrill 1946). Modem urban conquests do not depend on bringing back scalps, ribs or teeth. Sports are an established outlet for civil, non-warring competition. In the growing health conscious sector of U.S. demographics, extrusion-molded marble and golden human facsimiles are the pinnacle of amateur athletic success. However, most must settle for the perennial T-shirt as tangible proof of their participation and conquest, if not over others at least over the clock. T-shirt garnering is a serious aspect of participation in amateur athletics. Registration deadlines admonish late comers with those speed inspiring words: "T-shirts to the first 500 entrants." At the conclusion of the event the T-shirt artifact serves as a marker of the occasion and as wearable symbol of one's self-definition. For example, one can utilize the T-shirt in the ambiguous environment of i sporting goods store to establish oneself as a serious runner and a knowledgeable consumer of running shoes.

T-shirts as Poly-Cotton Pheromones

A potentially overlooked aspect of T-shirts is their ability to attract like-minded people and simultaneously repel social incompatibles. The words "Single head of household" are expected to describe 45% of United States by 1990 (Stern, Gould and Barak 1987). More importantly, the baby boom singles are characterized as being "social seekers." The singles have more leisure time, they socialize more and they also are more concerned with their social image than "marrieds." Igniting social dialogue may be an increasingly important function of the T-shirt in the future.


This study was limited to T-shirts (and sweatshirts) of any sleeve length and fabric construction. It included shirts with words or slogans and pictures that had some intention to communicate overtly. All clothing communicates, but the interest here was in clothing that had communication as a primary function. Patterns and florals or any image of a repeated and nonspecific nature and of course, shirts without distinction were excluded.

Inventories were conducted of the accumulated T-shirts of five individuals, one of which was the author. The procedure was to locate all T-shirts; record their symbols, slogans and other characteristics; and then group the shirts in meaningful categories. Additionally, the meanings of each shirt, the circumstances of its acquisition, and the grouping and labeling processes were discussed. Documentation was kept in the form of T-shirt lists, records of grouping and labeling activities, field notes and photographs. In seeking participants for the study I asked for referrals (and introductions) outside the academic community. All participants had full-time jobs outside the university.



An examination of the T-shirt diaries is presented in table format and discourse. Category labels in the table are offered as prototypes so that all diaries may be presented together. Interesting and insightful category labels supplied by participants are noted in the discussion of individual diaries. Also revealed in the discussion are calibrations of myself as researcher in the unfolding of this humanistic inquiry. The incorporation of personally experienced knowledge in the rendering of research is not a new idea (see Polanyi 1962), however, in the marketing discipline, disclosure of the process is (Hirschman 1986).

The Author's Diary

After recovering from the shock that I owned 30 T-shirts of the type under study (and another 23 that were more or less generic), I recorded their symbols and began to group the shirts into meaningful categories. Several categories were readily apparent (Table 1). Seven shirts were related to past and present academic affiliations. This was not surprising considering my line of work and many (too many) years of academic preparation. The next meaningful group to emerge was related to activities: personal participation in amateur athletic events (6 shirts), other events (5), and places where I had traveled (7). One was unique in its message of self-expression and the remaining shirts were for products or companies.

It should be noted that many of the shirts related to sports events also had some form of product or company information from the event sponsor. This fact is evidence of the expanding role of corporate America in the support of organized sports events (Oneal and Finch 1987, Taylor and Silverman 1984).

It was interesting that those shirts found in the laundry basket, the washing machine, and gym bag could be deemed most currently self expressive. For example, the shirt in the gym bag was a product shirt for an advertising text book which is expressive of a current activity: teaching advertising and promotion. Those shirts found in the bottom drawer archives were in many ways a shell of my former self. Deep in the archives was a "Gary Hart for President" shirt which had expressed loyalty to the person and the party during his first presidential campaign. Now, stripped of its deeper meanings (or at least irrevocably altered), this shirt was reduced to functionality (to be worn under sweaters for warmth).

In the mode of self examination I found support for several of the functions of T-shirts, most notably, T-shirts as sports trophies and T-shirts as definitions of cultural category (e.g., "Texas Longhorn"). Additionally I learned that the process of inquiry took much longer than expected (nearly two hours) and that the process could be much more personally exposing than originally expected. These and other insights were helpful in developing the instructions for study participants. For example, other diarists were cautioned to look for all T-shirts before beginning the grouping and labeling process. Following are highlights from the four other diaries.

The Diaries of Others

Dee's groupings reflected her interest in amateur sports participation. Eighteen shirts were listed under her label "exercise related'' and are listed in Table 1 under "Activities: sports participation." Dee explained that wearing exercise related T-shirts made her feel active. "It says: 'Look, I did a 5-K.'" Unique to Dee's diary was the special activity group that she labelled "volunteer." In this group were six T-shirts (Table 1) that were worn when organizing or officiating at some special event such as the "Run for Cancer." Dee's volunteer T-shirts seemed to reflect her history and allow her the cultural categorization of "socially concerned," whereas the sports participation T-shirts enabled her to bask in the reflected glory of accomplishment. It is important to note that a T-shirt may have different meanings for different people. For example, a T-shirt may relate to event attendance according to one person's diary but may be more specifically related to volunteerism for another person.

Also unique to Dee's diary were two fashion T-shirts. These T-shirts had no deep personal meaning. "They are just fun to wear because of the colors, in fact I organize all my T-shirts by color," she said.

Kay likewise was interested in the colors of her T-shirts, however, particular shirts had very important meanings and functions in her life. Kay's favorite was an Arkansas shirt with a Razorback on the front and a tail down the back. She gladly modeled this shirt while explaining that "It makes me feel lively, like I'm back in college again. I wear it to be obnoxious at football games." Kay also reflected that of the five T-shirts that had been given to her as gifts (Table l) several of them reminded her of old boyfriends.

For Que (by now you may have guessed that these are not the actual names of the diarists), six T-shirts (Table 1) related to sports event participation and were grouped under the rubric of "health consciousness." Five event attendance T-shirts were either music event attendance or attendance of events unique to a particular region. These T-shirts were considered to reflect "personal taste" and an appreciation of "local color." There were life experiences of personal importance related to the "U2 Unforgettable Fire, 1985 Tour" T-shirt and the artifactual consumption of that T-shirt served as a marker of the occasion. Whereas the "I AM A UFO" T-shirt was not related to a particular event, it was useful in defining Que's sense of humor/bizarreness and is listed in Table 1 under "Personal Meaning: Self Expression."

A concept of meaning construction emerged from my discussion with Que. To express his sense of irony, Que wore a jacket with his "Phil Collins-No Jacket Required, Tour 1988" T-shirt. In this way Que was able to manipulate, through other articles of clothing, the meaning communicated by this T-shirt, thus constructing his own meaning.

Neither Que, nor Jay the fourth and final diarist, expressed concern for the color of their T-shirts. However, both Que and Jay utilized the concept of meaning construction. Jay emphasized the construction of meaning through a T-shirt's interaction with himself and a particular situation, activity or environment. For example, Jay's four "Impersonal: Company/Product" T-shirts (Table 1) were from sporting goods manufacturers like Nike and Reebok. Jay enjoyed the hint of irony when he wore one of these T-shirts he labeled "I'm a jock" because he was obviously not a jock (these are his own words and not subjective opinion of the author). This meaning construction was then augmented by wearing this "I'm a jock" type T-shirt to play bridge with his oh-so-serious partner. In this way Jay constructed a personal meaning from an impersonal T-shirt.

Jay's eight "Travel/Vacation" shirts (Table 1) were though of as evidence of conquest. According to Jay, "T-shirts are the best souvenir because they are visible and portable--better than salt and pepper shakers that just sit on a shelf." Jay had seven T-shirts which were self expressive (Table 1). Jay explained that he picked T-shirts to wear according to his mood: "There are shirts for parties that I hope will evoke a comment and T-shirts like 'Betty Boop' to wear when I feel naughty."


The spirituality of T-shirts, if thought of in terms of psychic energy investment, appears to vary by person. For the diarists in this study, psychic investment ranged from organizing T-shirts by color (a low psychic investment) to T-shirt coordination and integration with specific life events for the explicit intention of evoking a response from a subset of the community (a high psychic investment). T-shirts as trophies (related to sports and travel) and T-shirts as labels of cultural category were repeated themes for all diarists. The role of T-shirts in rites of passage was not emphasized by these diarists. This may be related to the fact that participants were adults and many important developmental events had long since passed. T-shirts were not cited as useful in attracting or repelling social seekers; however, T-shirts were found to be useful in self expression which may indirectly function in the same capacity.

This paper was reviewed by a peer from the communications area of a different university. The comments of that outside auditor and the comments of the two anonymous reviewers which are not already integrated into the paper are included here in the form of questions to pique the interest of researchers

-How do we measure the effects of T-shirts on consumers as wearers or observers?

-How are T-shirt category representations expected to vary by consumer group and what does this tell us about that group?

-What is the cultural significance of oblique versus direct meanings associated with T-shirts?

-Is the function of T-shirts, as label of cultural category or declaration of group membership, different in urban, suburban and rural settings?

This study was limited to five diaries and therefore may not capture the full range of cultural functions related to T-shirts. However, for the diarist in this inquiry, T-shirts with overt intentions to communicate were unique carriers of cultural meaning for the individual who possessed the artifact. Their uniqueness stemmed from this clothing's ability to punctuate cultural categories and modify the meaning of other cultural artifacts. Furthermore, T-shirts were useful as building blocks of personal communication. Meanings were constructed by the diarists through the interplay of T-shirts, group identifiers (such as physical appearance or other elements of clothing) and situation or environment.


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