The Absurdity of a $5 vs a $500 T-shirt and What It Says about Brand Loyalty

Today’s fashion market is constantly diversifying into new and contemporary ways to clothe its customers. The range of prices for the same products in today's fashion world is one aspect in particular which has never been greater.

Take for example the t-shirt. It has been a staple in our wardrobes since the 1800’s and an iconic American garment since the 1950’s, after being brought into the limelight by the likes of famous stars such as James Dean, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman.  The price evolution of this clothing item is something of particular interest when considering what people are willing to pay for one these days. I decided to delve into the psychology behind why some customers are willing to pay $500 for something that is available for $5 elsewhere made from the same fabric by the same manufacturer.


The t-shirt has now grown to become a AU$21.5 billion industry in the US alone. So why has the market grown so large, when in many cases one tee is not dissimilar to the next? Well, apparently a lot can be said about the tee someone buys. For example, rappers and skaters prefer long and baggy while surfers typically wear them as outwear, usually with a simple slogan printed on the front. A professional, on the other hand, wears a t-shirt as an undershirt to prevent business shirts from yellowing under the armpits.

Funnily enough, the latter (professional) use for the t-shirt was its original intention. It was in 1904 that Cooper Underwear Company announced a new undershirt for bachelors, after which the US Navy a year later stated that sailors should incorporate these into their uniform. This is where the t-shirt received its first name: a “crew neck cotton pullover.”

The name we all know it by today, however, was first used by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his 1920 novel 'This Side of Paradise' where he wrote: “Amory, provided with ‘six suits summer underwear … one sweater or T-shirt…’ set out for New England, the land of schools.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald


This simple garment has now become a huge battleground for large fashion labels, all competing to win customer loyalty. Examples of the absurd pricing differential that has been applied to the humble t-shirt in modern times can easily be found online across well known retailers here in Australia today: e.g. Slazenger ($1.00), SurfStitch ($11.98), ASOS ($270) and Dolce & Gabbana ($591).

Somehow, the simple white t-shirt has managed to work its way into the realm of the luxury industry. This has resulted in some eye-watering price tags being put forward to customers, as is clearly demonstrated with D&G above. Other top end brands such as Prada and Gucci have also released their own versions, ironically all made with the exact same fabric as the $1 tee from Slazenger - namely cotton.

Why then are so many of us willing to pay these seemingly gluttonous prices? The answer, in large, boils down to brand loyalty.


The brand consultancy company Hitchcock Partners this year released research findings into how US consumers perceived a brand. The company took black t-shirts ranging in price from seven different companies and hid their labels. Participants then attempted to identify which brand belonged to which t-shirt.

The theory Hitchcock Partners were looking to prove was that the label and cost of a Prada t-shirt with a $280 price tag were the only two elements making the t-shirt "better" than a $5 one. Chief strategist Peter Bysshe said “The hypothesis was that the only difference between one t-shirt and the next – and the price of that t-shirt – was the brand.”

Participants involved within the research were mostly accurate when guessing which t-shirt belonged to mid-range labels, such as Versace or Jill Sander. The prices for mid-range usually start at around $90. But, beyond this, it was found that more commonly participants failed to distinguish between a Prada and a Target tee.

Research Results for T-Shirt Brands


When looking into how a brand is perceived, different demographics considered different brands as “cool.” When asking a 20-year old how much a pair of Levi’s should cost, the average answered $50. But when asking a 50-year old, they answered $14.99, for whom Levi's (from their generational perspective) represents a standard pair of jeans. This directly links to branding.

Customer loyalty is also a big factor in a brand’s perception. A.P.C. for example sold a hip-hop t-shirt produced by Kanye West for $144, which sold out. The fashion label owned by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, called The Row, sold a t-shirt costing $315. There was nothing different or special about these garments, besides the brand and a customer’s loyalty towards it.

Another common reason for customers choosing to pay these amounts for t-shirts, as Bysshe tells us, is down to our instinct: “it has nothing to do with what you can afford. It has everything to do with what you think you deserve.”


After writing this blog, although I personally would never spend over $50 for a t-shirt, it did make me question some of my previous purchasing decisions where I'd probably spent more than I should have on one. Brand loyalty can be a very powerful and persuasive force, which no doubt many of us will admit to.

One of our central themes on Buckscoop revolves around getting good value for money. As such, I felt it was important to highlight the irony behind professional marketers being able to make us feel as if we've achieved this after paying substantially over the odds for something as basic and inexpensive as a tee. So next time you're tempted, here's a suggestion - why not design your own for way less. Alternatively, keep an eye on Buckscoop's Deals board for details on where the best value fashion orientated sales are happening at any given point in time.


TOPICS:   Fashion and Accessories   Money

What do you think?

Your comment