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By Joe Haley


When James Dean arrived on the scene, he did so with a level of hipness unwitnessed before. Chicks? They swooned over his bad-boy, loner persona. And guys? Well, guys could only hope to be half as cool as him. But besides his brooding and sullen façade, Dean will forever be linked to one style trend: making the plain white T-shirt cool.

From that starting point, the simple blank canvas that was the T-shirt would eventually be decorated and become a true American fashion statement.

Search your own closet and dresser drawers. How many T-shirts do you own? More importantly, how many are blank and how many have imprints? Chances are you have more of the imprinted variety. (My imprinted to blank ratio is 60:4.) Some you purchased, some you were given. And the logos run the gamut: sports teams, concerts, special events, vacation destinations, pop culture, schools, bars and restaurants, etc.

We hold onto our favorite T-shirts, wear them constantly, keep them so long they fade and thin until they resemble a piece of lingerie. They are forever a presence in our lives.

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of Wearables, we’re taking a look at the top 15 promotional T-shirts of all time. For each of the next 15 days, we will present one iconic shirt and tell you why it made the list. Agree or disagree with us? Got your own suggestions? Let us know on Facebook or e-mail.

Top-15 Promotional T-Shirt Countdown

I Love NY
1. I Love NY - The logo is the letter "I" and a red heart atop the letters "N" and "Y." You know the shirt and you know the jingle. "I love New York." It debuted in 1977 as a marketing campaign touting tourism to the state of New York – although many people mistakenly think it was primarily for New York City. On its 30th anniversary, a trade journalist penned an article calling it one of the greatest tourism marketing campaigns of all time, and just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. The I Love New York shirt was popular from the outset – think about the 40 million tourists who visit the Big Apple each year. But the shirts became even more poignant after the 9/11 attacks. People wanted to show their support and love for the city and snatched up the tees in greater numbers than ever before.

The logo itself has reached iconic pop-culture status, and for that it has inspired a sea of imitators. No matter what it was, if people had an affinity for it, they would create an "I love …" tee. But none of this – the thousands of "I love my dog, honor student, church, car, left-handed dentist, etc." – would have been possible without that first simple design. 'Nuff said. I Red Heat T-shirts.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: I'm old. I remember the I Love New York campaign from when it came out. You'd see it on TV, and the jingle would play in your head so much you'd start not loving New York. And, my mother had one of those tees. I actually have a picture of her (which I cannot find) where she is yelling at my older brother and me to clean up our room. I had the camera and just snapped it mid-rant. But one of the other tees I remember my mom wearing – the Virginia Is For Lovers tee – was not quite as popular as the one from New York, even though the slogan debuted nearly 10 years earlier.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: There's no easy choice for the top spot when it gets to the last few options on this list. I Love New York was my personal pick for #1, and I think it is eminently deserving. Its singular heart logo – through T-shirts as well as hats, sweatshirts and more – has spread throughout the world. Plus, it's cheap enough for anyone to afford. I would argue it gives the Stars and Stripes a fight for the most popular visual representation of America over the span of the Earth. That's the power of a promotional T-shirt.
2. Concert Tees - Ah, the concert T-shirt. That classic (circa 1970s) baseball-style shirt with black sleeves and a white body emblazoned with the Rolling Stones lips or the Grateful Dead skull. And while that timeless imagery remains, the concert T-shirt has evolved into something a little more fashionable. What was once one-style-fits-all has blossomed into a variety of cuts, colors and logos to suit the discerning needs of those in attendance. A concert T-shirt says a lot more about the wearer than it does the band and, if nothing else, it's the perfect conversation starter: "Hey, you saw Madness?"

Today, no band worth its weight in guitar picks would dare tour without logoed apparel in tow. And imagine the scene if after a kickass, ear-piercing two-hour show, there were not tees to buy. There would be bedlam. People need their concert T-shirts, and most are not going to put up with the bootleg versions hawked in the parking lot. But the concert tee isn't something unique to the big arena shows. Smaller indie bands and bar bands offer imprinted tees, and their followers eagerly fork over a few bucks for one. I mean, who wouldn't want a Dynagroove shirt?

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: Yes, Dynagroove was a real band from the '80s in the Philly music scene. Rooting through the attic recently, I found two concert tees from years gone by – a 1982 Clash Combat rock tee with the sleeves cut off and a 1990 Paul McCartney Flowers in The Dirt tour T-shirt. How does that Clash shirt fit? You can take a guess.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: I never understood the rule, "Don't wear a band's shirt to their concert." You're at the concert, you like the band, so what if you're showing some additional band pride? As my colleague Chris Ruvo says, "It's no big deal to wear a Flyers jersey at a Flyers game." (Good counterargument by the author of this piece). And since I have nothing to add, let me reference my favorite Onion T-shirt: "Your Favorite Band Sucks."
The Rolling Stones
Harley Davidson
3. Harley Davidson - There are few American brands that have as many die-hard loyalists as the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Countless bikers wouldn't be caught dead on anything else. The allure includes the low, throaty rumble of the bike, the big fenders, gleaming chrome and big-shouldered styling. There's also the bad-boy imagery of Marlon Brando in The Wild One and real-life outlaws like the Hell's Angels. Ride a Harley and no one's messing with you.

Perhaps this is why devotees to the motorcycle and distant admirers alike want to get their mitts on a black T-shirt printed with the Harley-Davidson crest. You don't see people walking around with Suzuki, Kawasaki or BMW tees. (Wear that tee around a Harley enthusiast and you're asking for a punch in the face.) Not that it would happen, but you can imagine the scene: Burly guy, arm hair thick enough to cover the face of his watch, Harley tee stretched over his keg-inspired gut, ambles up to the bar. The Suzuki guy just zips up his jacket and scurries away. (Although the burly gentleman is, more than likely, a CPA by trade.) That T-shirt, friends, has a set of brass ones.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: When I was growing up, one of the older guys in the neighborhood rode a Harley. He still does to this day. Still has the classic biker look too – long beard, leather jackets, all sorts of tattoos and probably about 100 Harley-Davidson T-shirts, either black or faded black. And although he aspires to be a 1 percenter (the label taken on by badass bikers, and not the moneyed elite protested by the Occupy movement), he's a big, doughy teddy bear. On his Facebook page, the pictures of his motorcycles are just as copious as pictures of his cats.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: I'll take the call of the open road in a corvette over a motorcycle. But you've got to hand it to Harley Davidson – no other mode of transportation so clearly defines a group of people. Not even the soccer mom SUV brigade.
4. Mickey Mouse - A rodent is one of the most recognizable brand ambassadors in the world. But not just any rodent. He's got oversized ears, white gloves, big yellow shoes and a joyous expression. Of course, it's the one and only Mickey Mouse. Thanks to him, Disney often ranks in the Top 10 most recognized brands worldwide. He's starred in scores of movies, had his own TV show/fan club, and actually has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It's been reported that he is in fact the most reproduced image – ever. More than Elvis Presley himself. (Thank ya, thank ya very much.)

Although there have been over 7,500 products bearing his likeness, the classic Mickey Mouse T-shirt is the true standard-bearer of Disney souvenirs. It's as classic as they come: Mickey with his hands behind his back, awe-shucks expression on his face. So innocent, yet so iconic. It could identify with any number of things in the Disney empire: the character himself, one of the Disney theme parks, the Mickey Mouse Club, etc. That simple T-shirt image has been given hundreds, if not thousands, of makeovers. He's been adorned in every conceivable sporting outfit, set inside every theme park and on every ride, and even given an edgier/skater dude vibe. While some incarnations may become passé over time, the classic Mickey remains timeless. And it's that for which the likes of Sponge Bob and company should be grateful.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: I confess, I've had four Mickey Mouse T-shirts (and one sweatshirt) in my lifetime. All the same pose, all ringer tees. For me it's the only Mickey tee to own. Since it is a true American classic, it never goes out of style. But, finding that shirt at Disney World isn't as easy as it once was. At least it wasn't in 2009, the last time I was there. We hit every shop in every park and Downtown Disney and came up empty-handed. Finally, an hour before we had to leave for the airport, I jumped off a shuttle and into one of the hotel shops and ... he shoots he scores!!! Now I have two in rotation – a white one and a blue one.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: This is going to sound like blasphemy, but Mickey Mouse doesn't have the cultural impact he once did. It was a fact of my childhood growing up. I was always more of a Donald Duck guy to begin with (my Dad does a great impression), and cartoons like Duck Tales were far more prominent than Mickey. This isn't a knock against Mickey; he is the symbol of Disney and completely deserving of his Top 5 spot on the list. But because Mickey's cultural imprint was so strong in the first half of the 20th century, it has slowly been whittled away as Disney continues to expand the original content within its empire. But, that said, nothing can erase one simple fact: Everyone knows M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.
Mickey Mouse
5. Nike - When you see the Swoosh, you automatically know. Nike. Just Do It. Other athletic brands have their hallmarks – the Adidas stripes, the Reebok vector – but none are as indelible as that little Swoosh. And Nike has gone the distance to ensure it stays that way, thanks to mega-endorsement deals with the biggest athletes on the planet. Michael Jordan carried the brand to the top, and Tiger Woods and others have kept it there, cladding themselves head to toe in Nike gear. (And to show you how savvy Nike is, the company's executives knew that a good portion of Woods' TV shots would be from behind, so they smartly affixed a Swoosh to the back of his shirts.)

If you wanted to "Be Like Mike," it was simple: Just Wear It. Nike will always be known first for its sneakers, but its ubiquitous T-shirts are a close second. Whether it's the simple swoosh, the bold imprints of Just Do It or the soaring Jordan "Jumpman" logo, Nike shirts can be found anywhere athletes gather – even away from the fields and basketball courts. Sports fans may have their favorite teams, but a Nike shirt has become the uniform of choice.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: When it comes to my athletic gear, I'm more of an Adidas guy. That goes back to the '70s when it was the only true brand for soccer players. But Nike finishes a close second. While their shoes run a little on the small and narrow side, I'm a big fan of their apparel. I once owned a grey heather ringer tee with the Swoosh prominently printed front and center. It lasted years, becoming so thin and see-through that my wife decided the best course of action was to end it. After tearing it with her hands, she determined that it was too thin to even be used as a rag. I loved that shirt as much as I loved this Moses Malone poster that hung in our apartment at Lock Haven University. Few people noticed the Swoosh. Can you find it?

C.J. Mittica, Editor: Like any sports-playing American, I own my fair share of Nike gear, and on the whole, the company remains on the cutting edge. But for better or for worse, no one has mastered the art of branding creep like Nike. That bothers me sometimes; colleges and professional franchises often look more like Team Nike than their own entities. But I'll give credit where it's due, particularly with Nike's recent set of baseball shirts. You may have seen them. Facial silhouettes of old ballplayers in all their hirsute glory – thick mustaches, giant afros and sideburns for miles. It wasn't Nike's original idea, but they ran with it, and the kitschy results are brilliant.
6. Hard Rock Café - Before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland, music fans had to satisfy their memorabilia jones at the Hard Rock Café. What opened in London in 1971 by two Americans has germinated into 172 establishments in 53 countries. While it's known for its memorabilia collection of over 70,000 pieces, its signature location-specific T-shirts have become the symbol by which it is known. And, once you've purchased one Hard Rock tee, you have to get another and another and another and ...

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: I once visited the Hard Rock Café in Dublin, Ireland. When I went inside to purchase a tee, I was disappointed to discover that they didn't have any in my size. Seriously, I was bummed.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: Growing up, I had two Hard Rock Café T-shirts: Phoenix and Toronto. I had never been to Hard Rock before. It was just something – especially as a kid – that you knew you wanted. Like so many entries on this list, it shows the power of apparel marketing, creating a worldwide imprint beyond the entity itself. (Funny, I never owned a Planet Hollywood shirt. Maybe I was smarter than I thought.)
Hard Rock Café
All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt
7. All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt - This is a favorite of every mom and dad on business trips or adults-only vacations. They traveled to Boston, Chicago, Orlando, Hawaii and other exotic ports of call and returned with souvenirs for the kiddies. Since ash trays and shot glasses were out of the question, that gift was often a T-shirt with landmarks emblazoned across the front. The "Lousy" shirt is not attributed to a single creator, but it's not hard to imagine where the inspiration came from. I'm convinced that somebody looked back at his spurned childhood and declared, "All those T-shirts are actually saying, 'My parents went to Las Vegas and all I got was this stupid T-shirt.' " Call it genius, call it inspiration – this catchphrase was showing up everywhere. And parents were snatching them up too. Since the height of its popularity, it has spawned a whole slew of copycats, many of which are off-color, to say the least.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: One year, my parents got my two younger brothers this T-shirt while on vacation. They hated them. My two older brothers and I were too old for such gifts, so we got squat. Well, not entirely, as we took great joy in mocking our younger brothers every time they wore those shirts. Thanks, mom and dad.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: I totally get the popularity of the "Lousy" T-shirt. At first, it was so self-referential and clever because it called out the whole souvenir industry. And yet it didn't weaken that market; it just made it stronger. It proves that even though many people think of souvenirs as ridiculous or unnecessary, they still truly love them.
8. Have a Nice Day - One image can be singular in its meaning. You don't even need the tagline to know that the yellow smiley-face T-shirt means "Have a nice day." If we are to believe Forrest Gump, the tee was born of an accident akin to the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup – the merging of mud and a yellow shirt that no one liked. In reality, the smiley face had been hanging around since 1963 in a variety of marketing and advertising pieces before it hit its stride in 1972. The Spain brothers of Philadelphia were looking to sell a novelty item, so they cranked out Mr. Happy on a celluloid button; they sold over 50 million buttons in no time. But the shirt is the avenue for which many people remember it. How could one not smile when donned in the classic tee? And even the sourest mood is sure to turn when you see another person clad in the happy-maker.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: Long story, stay with me: Back in the mid-'70s, my dad's dad was in a Philadelphia hospital with an unknown illness. This was right around the time of the Legionnaires' Disease, so the doctors weren't taking any chances. His room was literally a converted storage closet – the bed barely fit inside. My father and I went to see him one day but had to wait first in the cafeteria. It was a classic little diner setup, and we sat at the counter. After we left, I noticed that the yellow smiley-face button had fallen off my jacket. When I returned to the cafeteria to look for it, I noticed that the waitress was wearing it on her lapel. She looked so darn happy as she wiped down the counter that I didn't have the heart to ask for it back. One yellow grin is truly that contagious.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: Anyone who believes this is just a relic of the '70s is woefully off base. Just look at the mega-popularity of emoticons (and their outreach beyond the Internet, into apparel and other things). There's no guessing where the inspiration for those came from.
Have A Nice Day
9. Che - Before we had Obama's "Hope" T-shirts, posters, et al, there was the Che Guevara tee. The Marxist revolutionary from Argentina was one of the most popular figures to come out of the tumultuous 1960s. Since his death, people have used his image for a variety of causes, often associated with the underdog and the idealist. When people or groups have fought the establishment, then a Che tee – usually in red or military green – has often been used to symbolize their plight. In vogue for years, the shirt is still popular today. The T-shirt is also big with hipsters and the gentrified, fighting for their rightful place in line for a double espresso latte with non-dairy whipped cream. Oh, the irony.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: I dig the Che tee and would wear one. I mean, who doesn't fight for something? But, if it's become too mainstream, does it lose that something-something? Seriously, when you see a guy with a neck tattoo, a pierced lip and dreadlocks wearing one, do you immediately think, "Fight the power man," or do you think, "Ahh, the coffee shop hired a new barista"?

C.J. Mittica, Editor: I wrestled with this choice because it really tests the idea of "promotional." It's not necessarily Che Guevara's estate that is pumping out all these tees; rather, it's a menagerie of clothing companies and corporations latching onto the revolutionary's iconic image. (Seriously, it's available on right now for $18.95.) Ultimately, the Che shirt is just too popular to leave off the list. But that's because people love the image. As Joe alludes to, how many people who own this shirt really know about Che Guevara?
10. Hooters - Raise your hand if you’ve been to a Hooters. Keep it in the air if you went for the food. I thought so. For nearly 30 years, the Hooters restaurant chain has been serving hungry men burgers, wings and ice cold beer – along with a healthy side of eye candy. Its iconic uniform includes orange running shorts and a skintight tank top imprinted with the Hooters logo and its famous mascot, Hootie the owl. While it’s one of a handful of chains that hawks shirts in its establishment, what separates Hooters from the others is the degree of raunch associated with the duds. Besides the classic logo, many of the shirts sport sayings and logos of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink variety. (Pretty much what you would expect from a restaurant whose slogan is “Delightfully tacky, yet unrefined.”) And regardless of one’s taste, it’s undeniable that once you see that logo, you immediately associate it with the eatery; isn’t that what good marketing is all about?

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: The beer specials are OK, but the food is nothing to talk about. And the Hooters girls, well, let’s just say that some are suffering from delusions of grandeur. Let’s face it: Saying “I’m a Hooters girl” does not have the same cachet as saying “I’m a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.” As for the tees, I enjoy them, but prefer seeing them on other people.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: Yes, we go to Hooters occasionally for lunch. The beer’s cheap; what more do you want from me? Without fail, there is always a dad bringing along his five-year-old daughter. I have a hard time believing that’s where little Ashley really wanted to go to eat. But that’s the power of some creative merch and “gifted” servers. Restaurants and bars do clever T-shirts better than any other industry.
Barack Obama
11. Barack Obama - The political theater has evolved into a name-calling and uncooperative fraternity where the extremes of both parties are controlling the message. This contentiousness started to snowball during George W. Bush’s second term. But, then came the 2008 elections, and with them a candidate who brought hope to millions of Americans. That candidate, Barack Obama, and his message were forever emblazoned in the American narrative because of an iconic poster that made its way to a T-shirt. Regardless of how you feel about the man, that “Hope” poster image will surely be in the Smithsonian one day. It is the single image that symbolizes that election.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: Ignore what people say about me. They label me as crotchety, old-fashioned and uber-conservative. Regardless of where I stand in the political spectrum, one thing is for sure: I’m certainly not going to wear my party affiliation on my shirt. While I don’t mind patriotic messages and imagery, I’m not going to be a walking shill for any candidate.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: President Obama’s campaign was the first time in my lifetime that a political message spurred a massive merchandising apparel effort. “Hope” and Obama shirts were inescapable around the 2008 election. The images were so iconic that it just translated so easily into a shirt. At least you can put the shirt away once the election’s over. I shake my head every time I see a “Dole-Kemp ’96” bumper sticker.
12. Frankie Says Relax - The song "Relax" launched the career of a British dance group called Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Relax. At first glance that mantra is so succinct, laconic and pithy. It’s about meditation, right? Nope. After lying for years, one of the band members admitted that it was in fact about "shagging." And even though many in the public were not fooled, the lyrics to the song fueled the controversy and fueled the sale of a plain white tee with the message: "Frankie Says Relax." Surely there were two camps who wore the shirt: those who were unaware of the song’s message and those who were. For so many it was the shirt to have in the mid-’80s.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: The "Frankie Says Relax" T-shirt had to battle it out with another pop culture catchphrase in the mid-’80s – "Where’s the beef?" I never owned either T-shirt – I’m not much into trends and crazes – however, I do like the simple black-on-white graphics of the Frankie tee. In fact, one of my favorite tees, circa 1986, is this Black Flag T-shirt I purchased on South Street in Philadelphia at a place called Zipperhead. For me, the minimalist design is so much more attractive than all the flourishes that some T-shirts feature.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: We love our catchphrases, don’t we? For people who weren’t there (like me, just a child in the ’80s), it’s hard to explain to them why some shirts become insanely popular. Of course, I shouldn’t be talking – I definitely had a Bart Simpson "Don’t Have a Cow, Man" shirt.  
Frankie Says Relax
13. CBGBs - The New York music club CBGBs opened in 1973 and quickly became the place to see up-and-coming bands. Since no cover bands were allowed, acts like The Ramones, Blondie and The Talking Heads not only debuted there, but regularly played the club at the outset of the punk rock/new wave era. For those who made the trek, it was imperative that they nabbed a CBGBs tee. And, much like the bands who played there, the T-shirt was anything but elaborate. Usually black, the tees featured the CBGB font and the occasional nod to punk rock music. Wearing one was a music badge of honor.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: In Philadelphia and the surrounding area, we didn’t have the equivalent to CBGBs, but we had a few places that came close. The Penn Community Center in West Philly was an old schoolhouse that showcased local (and not very good) punk bands – Flight of Mavis, Nixon’s Head, Tons of Nuns. The Ambler Cabaret was a nicer venue in the suburbs, and it hosted local bands – The New Peter Fonda Experience, Dynagroove, Tommy Conwell and The Young Rumblers. Kind of funny that a place that was built for Country Blue Grass and Blues (CBGBs, get it?) would become the mecca for punk rock.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: The '80s had their "Members Only" jackets, and the CBGBs T-shirt functioned very much the same way: proof that you had been to the hottest music destination at the time in America. When we talk about T-shirts as proof of belonging to a group, this was one of the quintessential examples.
14. Farrah Fawcett - The classic Farrah Fawcett poster spawned the classic Farrah Fawcett tee. What the shirt did was allow teen boys to take the object of their … ahem … affection anywhere they wanted. (However, the older the dude and the bigger the gut, the creepier it was to see him wearing this shirt.) But more importantly, Farrah was one of the first non-musician celebrities to grace a T-shirt. The pin-up girl had become an apparel staple.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: Even though my freshman year college roommate hung the Farrah Fawcett poster in our dorm room, I was more of a Cheryl Tiegs guy. I think I would have given my left arm to have her grace the front of my T-shirt.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: The Farrah craze was before my time, though I can understand why it transitioned into apparel. That Farrah shirt was essentially the replication of a photograph. Today, we have tons of decorating technology to more vividly replicate photorealism, and yet T-shirt designs are skewing differently – artistic, creative, more word than photo driven.  
Farrah Fawcett
Vote for Pedro
15. Vote for Pedro - The white ringer tee with the declaration “Vote For Pedro” imprinted on the front was a mere prop in the 2004 comedy Napoleon Dynamite. In the movie, the shirt was a rallying cry for the disenfranchised, a way to tell the cool people, (yeah, we’re talking to you, Don), “We will no longer be silent.” That quirky movie exploded in popularity and resonated with millions of people, and that simple shirt became a must-have. Its hip pop culture status spawned a host of other "Vote For ..." shirts.

Joe Haley, Managing Editor: The “Vote For Pedro” shirt evokes memories of my teen years. My future sister-in-law worked at a place called Wild Tops where she decorated T-shirts with a heat press. The dominant font used was similar to Cooper Black, which is the one used on the Pedro shirt. Besides that, I love ringer tees and have at least a dozen in my vast collection.

C.J. Mittica, Editor: Whittling down the list to 15 is hard. (One of my favorite choices, John Belushi’s alcohol-drenched “College” sweater, didn’t make the cut because, you know, it’s not a T-shirt.) But just when I started to wonder if anyone still wears the “Vote for Pedro” shirt, lo and behold, a 30-something guy was sporting it at my gym. Funny how that works out.
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Come take part in our T-shirt countdown! Participating is easy. Just send us a picture (or post it on Facebook) of you with a classic decorated T-shirt. It can be one from our list or something else from back in the day. You'll be entered into a random drawing for a $50 Visa Gift Card. Finally, that Wham! 1985 World Tour shirt won't go to waste.