Skip to main content
Digital Projects

A T-shirt is a T-shirt is a T-shirt?


How to transform a T-shirt into something else? I must consider other uses, change its construction, analyze the materiality and the process of transformation, and write about it. This is a tall order for someone who appreciates the simplicity of the T-shirt for its very sake. With the help of the assignment, the readings and the Planet Money podcast, I will think about the T-shirt anew.

A T-shirt is a T-shirt. Its qualities are finite, starting with a tight knit of a thin gauge yarn. The fiber can vary; other qualities may vary, too: color, image or message, or none, placement of message if there is one, pocket or none, T or V-neck, sleeve length, and whether the shirt is fitted for men and women separately or unisex.  That’s about it for variation, at least in my narrow but widely held view. It is the ultimate object of conformity, regardless of any novel adornment or who is wearing it.


I have a T-shirt in mind for this abstraction, but a discussion with the professor was needed to help put shape to it. Learning about the exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, “Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse,” mixed with bonding over a shared activity of knitting inspired a purpose for the left-over yarn that I’ve been keeping with the goal to repurpose.

The selling of castoff T-shirts in Africa also inspired me, and I got a chuckle out of learning from those interviewed for the Planet Money podcast that a T-shirt doesn’t necessarily lose value in the second-hand market due to what we may consider an offensive message, but its value is diminished when it is too large. The potential marketability may not justify the labor of a snip here, a snip there, and no more than four seams to resew to a pared down T.  For those who have the resources, it is a clever modification. It’s one that can be used to vary shape as well as to adjust sizing.

Once we start thinking in terms of variations like those just mentioned, the definition of a T-shirt comes into question. With that is the notion of it being fashionable. Following Simmel’s ideology, T-shirts fall into the category of classics gone fashionable (557). A T-shirt when worn by a celebrity may become an aspiration, thanks to media. This is either an unexpected win for the producer of the t-shirt, or it is an intended one. A producer may start increasing production at the same time that they gift items to celebrities with the expectation that media exposure will create demand.

The economics behind the production of the T-shirt is an important story with many layers.  Cotton, proprietary technology to make yarn, world trade, labor, poverty, consumerism, distribution, brand dominance, politics, and the second hand market in T-shirts all feature in the global business of making and selling this unassuming ubiquitous basic, as presented in NPR’s Planet Money podcast, inspired by Pietra Rivoli’s book, The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy… I wonder about the origins of the T-shirt that I intend to repurpose. I bought it as a souvenir while vacationing in a small town in Brazil. What part of it was actually “MADE IN BRAZIL?” The souvenirs that we buy from our travels represent a place to us, but often they are not wholly homegrown.


The garments on the T-Shape page of the Culture of Fabrics website provided further inspiration. I had an idea in mind for my T-shirt abstraction before I looked closely at the images of T shape garments on the website. I am now inspired by the hand-embroidered Woman’s Robe from China. My T-shirt abstraction is evolving. To be continued.

A T-shirt is a T-shirt is a T-shirt?