Consider the rock T-shirt.
It's not just a piece of clothing; it's a cultural totem, a tangible memento of personal taste. At least, it was.
Once the province of concert merchandise booths, a rock shirt meant that you or someone you know went to the show and laid out an extra $10 or $20 for the bragging rights, which you wore right there across your chest for all the world to see.
Concert attendance is no longer mandatory. Sometimes, in fact, it's impossible. When Ashton Kutcher shows up on "The Tonight Show" wearing a black "Rolling Stones '72" shirt -- a tour that took place six years before he was born -- it's safe to assume Kutcher didn't buy the shirt in the parking lot of the Hollywood Bowl after the gig.
He probably bought it at Target or JCPenney. Both stores, along with mall punk shops such as Hot Topic, sell reproductions of vintage rock tees in the name of fashion. Want an AC/DC shirt from the "Back in Black" era? Maybe a floating-pig tee from mid-'70s Pink Floyd? There are Def Leppard and Cure shirts available, if the '80s are more your thing.
You can buy the real ones, too. A genuine Santana shirt from a 1973 show will set you back $102 online.
"Anything to do with fashion basically trivializes most things, particularly anything to do with rock music," Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson told the BBC. "I view heavy-metal T-shirts surfacing in Justin Timberlake videos as not something to write home about."
Indeed, the tees are part of the resurgence of rock fashion, with its emphasis on studded belts, Converse sneakers and shaggy hair worn by people who are more interested in fashion than making a defiant, if passive, statement through their appearances.
"To me, metal's cool because it used to be the choice of the person who walked alone, the lion who strides confidently through the jungle knowing full well that 'this AC/DC T-shirt says a lot about me,' " Justin Hawkins, singer for the Darkness, told the BBC.
A T-shirt still says a lot about you, but what it says has changed. In a broader cultural sense, the ubiquity of the rock tee is part of a trend toward branding ourselves with corporate logos. You can buy shirts emblazoned with the names of the stores selling them or show how clever you are with a mass-produced tee bearing slogans about the volume of tequila you can drink or why it's cool to throw rocks at boys (hint: They're smelly).
If you're ready to buck the trend, if all you want is a simple, blank T-shirt, your options lately have been limited. If you want one that fits right, too, well, that's just crazy talk.
So crazy it could make a lot of money, that is.
American Apparel, a Los Angeles clothing company, has positioned itself as an anti-fashion brand for discerning consumers by producing T-shirts and other clothing with no logos. It's an idea that has built the company's headquarters into what it says is the largest garment factory in the country, with more than 3,000 employees working in a converted railroad warehouse on the edge of downtown Los Angeles. Founder and owner Dov Charney says his company sold 40 million T-shirts last year, a number he hopes to boost to as high as 60 million this year.
Founded in 1997, the company started as a wholesale vendor of T-shirts. It has grown over the past few years to include retail stores in major cities, an online store and an expanding line of clothes, including hooded sweatshirts and underwear. With provocative advertisements, the company is targeting young people it calls "early adapters" -- the ones who shape trends instead of chasing them. The no-logo ethos appeals to those people who aren't interested in advertising their personal preferences on their garments, says Alexandra Spunt, who oversees ad copy and marketing for the company.
"It's this kind of return-to-basics thing, the no branding," she says, though she notes, "Our No. 1 selling point is still the actual product. You can't actually know what percentage of people are buying clothes because they're sweatshop-free or because they like the ads."
All three are selling points, say purchasers.
"They're very high-quality, and they're pretty hot on, meaning they look really good," says Ann Callison. She runs MojoWear, a small New Mexico company that puts its own designs on American Apparel shirts and sells them online and in boutiques around the country.
"The main reason is, really, because of their dedication to human rights and workers' rights and the way they treat their workers," she says.
American Apparel touts its wages, which start at $12.50 an hour for new garment workers and go as high as $20. Employees also may purchase company-subsidized health insurance and even borrow bicycles to get back and forth to work.
The growing buzz around American Apparel is a concern, though, for independent designers such as Callison.
"Every marathon, rock-concert and would-be-T-shirt designer is using them, so their brand is too strong on a retail end," she says. "The end consumer can't be like, 'Oh, that's American Apparel.' You need to be, 'Oh, that's MojoWear.' "
The problem for MojoWear is not a problem for Charney and American Apparel.
"The more shirts that are out there, the better," he says.