T-shirts can be the measure of fashion

T-shirts can be the measure of fashion – clothing industry trends

Byline: Vicky Uhland

If you want to know how much fashion T-shirts have changed in the past couple years, get out your tape measure.

Gone are the oversized, loose-fitting, urban-influenced tees. In their place are form-fitting, revealing, ’70s-influenced styles. And just as the oversized tee styles seemed to cross the gender gap, so are the form-fitting styles: These days men, it seems, want to reveal their bodies just as much as women do (see related story on page 43).

Consider, for example, Anvil Knitwear’s ringspun cotton T-shirt that will be introduced in 2003. The ladies’ small is 12 inches wide from side seam to side seam, several inches smaller than the loose-fitting tees of past years. But with its 1 x 1 ribbing (one rib with one space), the new Anvil tee is designed to stretch. In fact, some ribbed cotton tees can stretch up to 50 percent, says Roy Rolstone, director of merchandising at Burnaby, British Columbia-based i/d. These T-shirts are designed to fit – and fit tight.

“They’re body-conscious garments – a lot sexier and form fitting,” says Christopher Levesque, vice president of marketing at Anvil. “They’re silhouetting someone’s body.”

Manufacturers attribute the style shift to several factors. And who better to ask than American Apparel, which has in the past been somewhat of an industry renegade with its tight-fitting styles, and now finds itself in the mainstream?

“It’s that whole ’70s trend – very tight,” says American Apparel Advertising Manager Kara Messina. “Everyone got so sick of that one-size, big, baggy rough tee. That’s the kind of T-shirt you sleep in. It’s a waste of promotional money if you sleep in it and never wear it outside the house.”

Another factor is the trend toward yoga and other exercise regimes. In fact, i/d modeled some of its styles after form-fitting yoga shirts. And not only do men and women who’ve done their time in the gym want the ease of wearing their workout clothes in the workplace, they also want to show off their buff bodies. That’s the idea behind the rash of spaghetti-strap T-shirts for women that will hit the catalogs next year. Even traditional T-shirt designers such as Hanes are introducing spaghetti strap and tank top styles.

“A broader age group of women are a lot more confident to show their arms now,” says Renee Thomas, senior merchandising manager for Hanes Printables.

“If someone’s got the figure to wear a body-hugging tee, they will,” adds Anvil’s Levesque.


Spaghetti straps, tank tops and tight T-shirts are traditionally junior market items. But as Anvil’s Levesque points out, “there’s a lot of gray area now between age and style. It seems as a society we’ve all melded and are somewhat less age specific when it comes to clothes.”

Thomas of Hanes adds, “It’s a lifestyle choice rather than an age choice,” and points out that younger, more revealing styles such as tank tops are particularly popular as uniforms in certain segments of the hospitality market, such as beach cafes and resorts.

Manufacturers have been quick to recognize this, melding junior styles with a women’s cut.

“The junior market has driven a lot of these styling things. We bring in the fashions in a fit that works,” says i/d’s Rolstone. “We take a very tight fit for juniors and size it up for women.”

The difference between a junior fit and a women’s fit includes hip-length hemlines rather than waist-length, a more relaxed fit in the bustline and looser armholes.

Levesque points out that the more revealing styles still work in the workplace. “Spaghetti straps cross over really well. They can be worn on their own or used for layering under a jacket.” In fact, tighter-fitting styles may be an advantage, as they layer better than bulky tees.


Fabric content is a key determinant in how form-fitting a style can be. Rolstone says that old standbys such as Lycra and Spandex add stretch, but they can cost $3 to $4 more per T-shirt than 100 percent cotton. Hence the reliance on ribbed cotton styles. The ribbing allows for stretch but cuts costs, while still including the high perceived value of 100 percent ringspun cotton.

Ribbing also adds texture, which is an important trend in fashion tees, according to Nina Massey, VF Brand Solutions merchandise manager of fleece and tees. “‘Look rugged, feel soft’ is a motto we are hearing,” she says.

1 x 1 ribbing, also known as baby rib, is so popular that some manufacturers are using it to make up the bulk of their 2003 fashion tee offerings. i/d will introduce a men’s crew neck and women’s V-neck, a spaghetti strap tee, a women’s tee with a shoestring-type, lace-up placket, a women’s tee with a keyhole neckline and a sleeveless hoodie tee – all in 1 x 1 rib.

Hanes is banking on the idea that 1 x 1 ribbing is appealing to what Thomas calls the “contemporary professional woman.”

“Our 1 x 1, 6.1-ounce rib has stretch and recovery, comfort and softness, but with a snugger fit,” she says.

For 2003, Hanes will introduce a short-sleeve ladies tee with a broad scoop neck, a three-quarter sleeved mitered V-neck style and a tank top designed for women rather than juniors – with two-inch wide straps and fitted armholes. “It’s not a great big, athletic scooped armhole,” Thomas says. All these styles will be in 1 x 1 rib.

At PremiumWear, the ladies’ Jockey 2003 line will feature short-sleeve and long-sleeve T-shirts in 100 percent cotton 1 x 1 rib, with a tonal satin trim on the neckline.

“They’re slightly fitted but not too fitted,” says Julia Roehl, director of special markets at the Minneapolis-based supplier of a number of promotional apparel lines.

At VF Brand Solutions, the Lee line won’t introduce any new fashion tees in 2003, but the firm’s Gitano line for women will debut a ribbed sleeveless V-neck tee. Anvil will introduce a 1 x 1 rib, 100 percent ringspun cotton mitered V-neck tee with cap sleeves. The Manhattan-based manufacturer will also debut a 2 x 1 rib cotton ladies’ tank top that’s designed to appeal to a younger market; because there’s one space for every two ribs, the top is extra stretchy.

“It hugs your body more, with more give,” Levesque says. It also has a “much stronger definition of a rib,” he adds. Whereas 1 x 1 ribs are subtle, a 2 x 1 rib top looks more like the traditional ribbed muscle tee or undershirt.

Anvil is also not overlooking Spandex or Lycra, considered the king and queen of stretch fabric. For 2003 Anvil is introducing a ladies’ spaghetti strap tank in 93 percent cotton, 7 percent Spandex. The company already added a ladies’ cotton/Spandex V-neck tee this year. Levesque says Anvil opted to go with a cotton/Spandex spaghetti strap style instead of a tank because “we see greater sales in spaghetti straps, rather than a tank, in a specialty fabric. In a tight-fitting garment, Spandex makes it dressier rather than an athletic garment.”

At Alternative Apparel, “there’s a high demand for Spandex because it’s more fitted,” says Stephanie Ives, advertising manager. For 2003, the Atlanta-based company will introduce a 95 percent cotton, 5 percent Spandex basic crew T-shirt with a cap sleeve.

Gitano will debut a three-quarter sleeve, hooded, cotton/Spandex T-shirt next year.

American Apparel will introduce a 95 percent cotton, 5 percent Spandex camisole with built-in chest support in 2003, but it’s concentrating more on what is proving to be a very hot fabric for the upcoming year: cotton jersey.

Unlike ribbed fabric, jersey is looser and more easily draped while still managing to be form fitting, says American Apparel’s Messina. It’s also easier to decorate, particularly for screenprinters. American Apparel’s jersey is 3.9 ounces, 40 singles combed cotton, which makes it sheer. The Los Angeles-based company will use the fabric in a variety of its new T-shirts, including a raglan cap sleeve style, a spaghetti strap style, a racer-back tank and a three-quarter sleeve, wide boat neck design that’s designed to slide down the shoulder in “that whole kind of ’80s Flashdance style,” Messina says.

American Apparel will also introduce what Messina calls a “two-sided top” – a cap sleeve, cotton jersey scoop neck style, with a deep dipped neckline. The idea is to wear the deep dip either in the front or back.

Hanes’ new Beefy Silver for Her jersey style is 70 percent cotton, 30 percent rayon. Thomas said the company opted for the cotton/rayon mix because rayon adds a “beautiful drape, and it really holds color.” Silver for Her’s 2003 jersey style will be tapered at the waist with a narrow-bound neckline.


And then there are the rib tees that really go upscale, with an almost sweater-like appeal, that take the fashion tee directly to the men’s market.

In the Enza line from Grand Rapids, Mich.-based wholesaler One Stop is the Fashion Rib Tee for men. Made of 100 percent cotton (heather grey styles are 90 percent cotton/10 percent polyester) done in a 6.5 oz. fabric with a 2 x 2 rib. The shirt features double-needle stitching, matching binding on the neck and cuff, and set in sleeves. It is definitely a shirt, albeit a T-shirt, that goes well with corporate casual attire and even a sport coat or a suit.

Also in this dressier-than-thou vein are both a men’s and ladies tee from Perry Ellis, the retail fashion line brought to the promotional marketplace by Miami-based Supreme International and offered exclusively to PPDs through Alpha Shirt Co. The PE500 for men and the P500W for women are both called the 4 x 4 Rib Crew and are made of 100 percent cotton in a 7 ounce, 4 x 4 rib, with a rib neck and cuffs. They offer a very upscale, sweater-type look perfect for the office, especially since the men’s style comes in six conservative corporate colors in sizing S through 3XL, and the ladies in five colors in S through XL.

Supreme also brings the Nautica line of apparel to our marketplace – exclusively through SanMar – and here too the rib look takes the T-shirt to a new level. The Nautica Interlock Rib T-Shirt is a 100 percent cotton, 1 x 1 rib knit, featuring double-needle stitching on the sleeve and bottom hem, side seams, and a 1 x 1 rib knit collar. It comes in black, white and navy.


Hot trends this year in terms of styling include cap sleeves or no sleeves, mitered V-necks and shorter lengths. But sleeves are the biggest story.

At American Apparel, 2003 styles will feature a raglan, cap-sleeve tee that can be a single color or two-tone, with a contrasting color on the collar and sleeves. Anvil will debut a cap sleeve tee because, according to Levesque, “cap sleeves work well with a body-conscious garment.” Hanes’ Silver For Her is going the opposite route, with a three-quarter-length sleeve in a 1 x 1 rib tee. “It’s a sleeve length women find works in warm weather and cold weather,” Thomas says.

For necklines, Thomas and other manufacturers report that V-necks are going deeper. Whereas a typical V-neck comes to a point about an inch below a woman’s collarbone, Thomas says styles for 2003 are featuring “plunging Vs” that dip three to four inches. Mitered V-necks – where the fabric that forms the V doesn’t cross over at the point but instead is stitched together – are still popular because of their clean finish. Hanes is including a mitered, bound V-neck with two rows of stitching on its three-quarter-length sleeve T-shirt.

Although cuts are becoming fashionably tight, length remains conservative. Most manufacturers report that their fashion T-shirt hemlines are ending at high hip. The idea, Thomas says, is that “a lot of women are wearing their shirttails out, and this length gives them the option to do that, or tuck the shirt in.”

PremiumWear’s long-sleeve 2003 fashion T-shirt style features small side vents so the shirt looks attractive when untucked, says Roehl. “It gives a lot of comfort, but it’s still tapered and fitted,” she says.


Fashion has always been driven by younger people, of course, and nothing says young like the T-shirt. As usual, the young are looking for something out of the ordinary.

At Jerzees, an old-line mill now part of Russell Artwear, which encompasses Jerzees, Russell Athletic, Mossy Oak, Three Rivers and Cross Creek, there are your standard T-shirts, of course, but so much more. There are Zt offerings done in long-sleeve, regular and a pocket version, all done in 6 ounce 100 percent combed ringspun cotton – the fabric alone takes it more upscale, but an array of color also adds fashion. Then there’s the 5.6 ounce Heavyweight Sleeveless Tee, for both adults and youth that makes its own fashion statement, and blended ringer tees for another more fashionable look.

Russell Athletic tends to the sports side of things, but fashion leaps from here too. The 6.5 ounce 100 percent Combed Cotton Raglan Tee features a popular contrasting stripe from the short-sleeve cuff through the collar, and then there’s the 6.5 ounce 100 percent combed cotton V-neck tee, with contrasting colors on the collar and cuffs.

To make a basic tee more fashionable, Nautica offers a Ladies Crewneck T-Shirt in 4.8 ounce, 95 percent cotton, 5 percent Lycra in a jersey knit with a self-fabric binding on the neckline. For men, there’s the Classic Logo T-Shirt, a 100 percent combed ringspun cotton shirt with color contrasting reinforced taping from shoulder to shoulder. The 6.1 ounce shirt features the classic Nautica sailboat logo on the left sleeve.

At King Louie for the younger fashion set, there are several tees in its TimeOut line that certainly fit right into the fashion tee motif. The Sheridan is a long-sleeve tee with a retro stripe detail, done in 6.5 ounce, 100 percent cotton jersey, while the Rowdy, done in the same fabric, features a chest stripe. These shirts are so upscale for tees they have a back yoke, and a contrasting color (matching the stripe) inside the shirt on the yoke. Time Out also features a long-sleeve crewneck tee in a 6.1 oz. jersey knit, and a Football Jersey tee done in a 7 oz. rich jersey knit.

Keeping with the popular stripe fashion statement in tees is the Long Sleeve and Shirt Sleeve Two-Stripe Tee from Badger Sport, done in a 5.5 oz. cotton, with the stripes running from the cuffs to the collar. Badger also has a one-stripe version. We got our Badger shirts from NES Clothing Co.

We checked with Alpha Shirt Co. to see if they had some fashion tees beyond the dressy Perry Ellis offerings, and discovered three that fit the younger fashion mode. From Alpha’s Authentic Pigment line comes the Direct Dyed Tee, a 100 percent cotton, garment-dyed garment which is washed to achieve soft, subtle colors. That same shirt is also available in a Ringer Tee version where the collar and cuffs feature a contrasting color. Also from Alpha is the Copa Banana Multi-color Swirl Tie Dye Tee. It’s a basic tee with double-needle stitching throughout in 100 percent heavyweight cotton; here it’s the tie dye that gives it fashion, after a fashion.


Color is serious business when it comes to T-shirts. Because tees don’t have as many styling details as more complicated wearables, such as golf shirts or jackets, color can sometimes be the key differentiation. Manufacturers spend quite a bit of time researching and deciding on color. According to VF Brand Solutions’ Massey, “we take annual market research trips to forecasting services in New York and visit with color/trend studios that have traveled all over the world to gather trend information. We are then able to collect that information and translate it or interpret into what we feel makes sense for our market.”

Hanes’ Thomas says the real story in fashion tees this year is color. In 2003, Hanes is adding 15 new colors to its line, bringing the total number of colors to 61.

“The trend is very vegetable-based colors,” she says. “Organics is the new buzz word,” with the emphasis on the national organic standards introduced in October. Look for nature-inspired colors such as moss, copper, gold nugget, aquamarine, plum and eggplant in Hanes T-shirts next year.

Hanes’ Beefy Silver line will feature sun-drenched brights, soft, silky pastels and nature-based neutrals, Thomas says. Green/blue colors are popular, and orange shades are hot. “It’s amazing how much orange has thrived in the last few seasons,” she says.

American Apparel is going the baby doll route this year in terms of color, introducing pale blue and light pink. At Anvil, 2003 styles will feature brighter colors such as azalea and Caribbean blue, along with less aggressive colors such as frost pinks and frost skies, Levesque says.

Anvil is also introducing a rich new “American Classics” color palette for 2003, featuring Colonial Green, Heritage Grey, Independence Red, and Patriot Blue.

i/d is concentrating on brights. Look for red, yellow, avocado, lavender, grape and camel in 2003, Rolstone says.

Alternative Apparel will continue to offer its “prepared for dye” T-shirts, which are manufactured in a natural cotton color and can be easily dyed to any color. PremiumWear will debut a tonal yarn-dye stripe in heather and white or navy and butter. Also in 2003, look for cirrus blue in PremiumWear’s palette.

PremiumWear’s Roehl points out that the “broader the color offerings, the more success. At (a T-shirt’s) price point, people are willing to step out a little bit” and buy colors they wouldn’t buy in a more expensive garment.

Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based journalist and a frequent contributor to Wearables Business.


Burnaby, British Columbia-based i/d is bringing new definition to the basic T-shirt. Not content to limit itself to traditional cottons, polyesters, rayons or even Spandex, the company is introducing T-shirts in fabrics normally reserved for woven or placket shirts.

For 2002, i/d introduced polynosic tees for men and women. Polynosic knit into a T-shirt is “dressier, with a real silky feel,” says Roy Rolstone, director of merchandising. “Even though it’s a T-shirt, people don’t look at it as a T-shirt. You can embroider it and wear it with nice a nice pair of casual pants and be dressed up.”

Currently, the company is working on designing 100 percent polyester, moisture-wicking fabrics in a T-shirt cut. Traditionally reserved for sweaty golfers who don’t want their shirts to get drenched, moisture-wicking fabrics are going more mainstream, Rolstone believes. “We’ve researched the market, and (moisture wicking fabric) is becoming more of a street wear item now,” he says. “It’s just a comfort factor. On a casual bike ride or a casual walk, you probably expend more calories than playing golf.”

T-shirts made of moisture wicking fabrics have an additional advantage. “They’re $3, $4, $5 cheaper than a golf shirt,” Rolstone says.

Timberline Colorado’s new Poly-Dri tee, a V-neck style made of 100 percent microfiber polyester, wholesales for just $5.50. The moisture-wicking fabric is also offered in a long-sleeve tee that wholesales for $7. – Vicky Uhland


Alternative Apparel: 888-481-4287 Alpha Shirt Co.: 800-523-4585 American Apparel: 213-488-0226 Anvil: 800-223-0332 Badger Sport (call NES):800-782-7770 Hanes: 800-685-7557 i/d: 888-433-3646 Jerzees/Russell Artwear: 800-321-1138 King Louie: 800-521-5212 Nautica (call SanMar): 800-426-6399 NES Clothing Co: 800-782-7770 One Stop: 800-968-7550 Perry Ellis (call Alpha Shirt Co.): 888-481-4287 PremiumWear: 800-347-6098 Russell Artwear: 800-321-1138 Timberline Colorado: 800-733-1033 VF Brand Solutions: 800-680-4440


Fashion T-shirts are generally geared toward women, but more manufacturers are offering men’s styles for 2003.

i/d will debut a 1 x 1 cotton rib crew neck for men in 2003, and is concentrating on more color blocking for men’s styles.

“Guys’ colors are pretty well always the same – black, gray, white, beige,” says Roy Rolstone, i/d director of merchandising, so color blocking is a way of adding interest to a men’s T-shirt. i/d’s color blocking features a contrasting sleeve for more of a “college-type, athletic look. That’s coming back, getting stronger,” he says.

Hanes introduced a 70 percent cotton, 30 percent rayon jersey tee for men in its Beefy Silver line for 2002. “It’s got drape, a little bit of shine in the color, and if you embroider it, it really dresses the T-shirt up,” says Renee Thomas, senior merchandising manager for Hanes Printables. This year, Hanes is “basically addressing the men’s market with color,” offering 15 new unisex colors, she says.

PremiumWear’s Field & Stream brand is unisex but appeals to men. Next year, the Field & Stream line will feature a pigment-dyed, washed-look crew tee in loden, brown and gold colors. “It’s slightly briefer in length. It looks great under a washed twill shirt,” says Julia Roehl, PremiumWear’s director of special markets.

American Apparel is adding color to the 1 x 1 cotton rib men’s ringer tee it introduced in 2002. Look for trim in bright colors such as fuchsia, kelly green and teal, contrasting with body colors of brown, navy or asphalt, says Advertising Manager Kara Messina.

Messina says men are embracing the body-hugging fit so popular in women’s fashion T-shirts. “Guys are now starting to buy the form-fitting tees. They’re not very into that baggy, surfer tee.” – Vicky Uhland

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