You may or may not have noticed but the price of the most essential basic, the t-shirt, has sky rocketed in price in the last few years. It's to the point where spending $100 or more on a women's t-shirt with a great fit and perfect cotton blend is completely worth it. Does the "perfect tee" always cost over $100 bucks? That depends on what you consider to be the perfect t-shirt.
A plain, casual, cotton staple, the t-shirt is all too elusive. With more than $20 billion spent a year on t-shirts in the U.S., labels from the Gap to The Row invest considerable time and effort in the quest to build a better t-shirt and every brand seems to have one that is "perfect" or at least "ideal." Brands including Gap, J.Crew, and Vince label their T-shirts "ideal," "favorite," "perfect" or "essential."
The push for perfection has led to higher prices for some shirts. While most basic t-shirts run from about $10 to $30, a midprice tee from a contemporary casual fashion label like James Perse or Vince can now cost between $50 to $150, and a number of designer labels sell plain tees for more. A seemingly simple t-shirt from The Row, the luxury line founded by Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, costs a whopping $260.
Our version by Alternative Apparel is made of 100% cotton, slightly distressed and sells for $38.
T-shirts have come a long way from the undergarments they once were. First worn by Navy men a century ago, they became a workwear staple for blue-collar men. In the 1950s, the tee was popularized in Hollywood by James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" and Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Wild One." In the decades to follow, tees grew more popular for both men and women and now they are a staple piece.
These days, t-shirts are the most commonly purchased men's clothing item. Some 83% of 849 men aged 18 and over surveyed said they had bought t-shirts over a recent 12-month period, according to a Mintel report released in May. On average, each American owns about 15 of them, according to a recent survey of 6,000 men and women by trade group Cotton Inc.
The rising price for cotton is putting pressure on manufacturers. That has led to rising prices for T-shirts in some cases, and also lower-quality cotton t-shirts or cotton-blend tees in others.
A few qualities come up over and over when designers and consumers talk t-shirts: fit, thickness, drape, and the shirt's ability to hold its shape. Though some designer labels charge more simply because of their cachet, these qualities are more often found in pricier t-shirts. "If you have things like long-staple, high-twist yarns, use mercerized cotton, double-chain stitching, you're going to get a better t-shirt, and you're not going to get those properties with a shirt that sells for $5.99," says Jeffrey Silberman, professor and chair of the Fashion Institute of Technology's textile development and marketing program.
On average, consumers expect their t-shirts to last about four years, the Cotton Inc. survey said. Brands generally recommend machine-washing cold and tumbling dry at low temperatures, but labels that make finer t-shirts recommend washing by hand or dry cleaning.
The weight and drape of the cotton were obsessions for Mr. Melillo, the designer. "But I wasn't in a rush. I figured, who needs another bad t-shirt?"
Designers say it is much harder to make the perfect tee than it might appear. For one thing, perfection lies in the eye of the beholder. Some consumers like their t-shirts fitted. Others like them slouchy and relaxed. Some want the fabric to be thicker, others sheerer. Some want the sleeves high, others low. Some want the shirt to be short enough that it looks neat when untucked. Others prefer something drapey. There is the customer who wants crisp t-shirts that can go to work under a blazer and the one who wants something that looks well-worn and lived-in.
"It's relatively quite simple to sew the perfect t-shirt, if there is such a thing, but it requires as much fitting attention and care as a complicated dress," says Marcus Wainwright, co-founder and designer of Rag & Bone. The fashion label launched "The Boy Tee," a $160 cropped shirt for women inspired by a basic men's t-shirt, earlier this year.
Designer Tony Melillo spent nine months trying to perfect the tees he launched under his latest label, ATM Anthony Thomas Melillo, exclusively at Barneys New York in 2012. Mr. Melillo developed a proprietary jersey cotton in Peru. The designer says he spent so much time on the shirts, which range from $62 to $120 and up for cashmere styles, because "for me it was about the fit and feel of the weight, the way it draped, how it would be sexy but not overly sexy to where it became see-through, not too sheer or too thick or too manly or too feminine."