Short-Sleeved: T-Shirts in Pro Wrestling
As a human being, I have a basic need for clothing. Couple that with being a wrestling fan, and there is a huge overlap in these interests. However, more so than in any other industry I know is there such a synergetic relationship between the product and its correlating merchandise, specifically that of the t-shirt, than in professional wrestling. As with many other fandoms, wrestling has a wide and varied outlet of merchandising, but there is no denying that the t-shirt dominates that pie chart. But t-shirts go beyond being just another money-making scheme in this example, with them contributing in other ways to the product as well.
Perhaps one of the earliest examples of t-shirts coming into mainstream play dates back to the territory days, when they were first used to further storylines. In 1977, Greg ‘The Hammer’ Valentine looked to solidify himself as his father’s successor and took aim at Chief Wahoo McDaniel, the then NWA Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Champion. The villainous Valentine challenged and defeated McDaniel, and in the process broke his opponent’s ankle as he took his title. Immensely proud of his achievements, Valentine boasted of his accomplishments, most notably with his shirts simply but proudly stating, ‘I Broke Wahoo’s Leg’ and ‘No More Wahoo.’ For 207 days Valentine would hold that championship, and appear in one of those shirts, riling up crowds everywhere he went. It was those simple designs that helped maintain his standing as the most hated man in his territory, and would contribute to building back to their eventual rematch, which saw McDaniel recapture the gold.
Whilst this was a much more passive feud, with McDaniel being inactive for the majority of this time, a much bloodier and volatile feud also utilised similar methods to add some layers to their hatred; Terry Funk versus Dusty Rhodes. The Funk/Rhodes feud went on for years across the East Coast, with their first recorded singles encounter taking place in 1969, and their last as recently as 2005. In that time, it was the late 1970s and early 1980s that the rivalry was at its boiling point, with all manner of hardcore stipulations throwing gas on the fire. Of course, when you’re going to war in bullrope, lights out, bunkhouse and Texas deathmatches, you’re going to dress for the occasion; jeans, cowboy boots and the all important t-shirt. And thus, ‘Dusty Sucks Eggs’ was born. What seems like a childish insult hurled across the playground has since become a legendary visual of Cooper Black font on Funk’s bright orange chest, synonymous with the brutal battles endured by these two warriors of the ring.
The merchandising side of things started to gain more and more traction in the 1980s and going into the 1990s. Whilst there was nothing cooler than Bret Hart’s sunglasses and Shawn Michaels’ leather biker hats, the t-shirts of old were far from reaching their full potential, both stylistically and commercially. With most designs not straying far from ‘picture of wrestler with name underneath’, and coupled with the general decline in wrestling’s popularity in the early 1990s, a change needed to be made...and then the glass shattered.
‘Austin 3:16’ burst onto the scene in 1996 following Stone Cold’s tournament victory at that year’s King of the Ring, and the simple black shirt and white text became an instant sensation and ultimately an iconic design. The Attitude Era brought about the most popular period in professional wrestling history, and with that, the quantity of merch being moved joined that upwards trajectory. As well as the overall prosperity that the Attitude Era brought, another feature of the chaotic Monday Night Wars helped bring about a new way for t-shirts to be integrated into the in-ring product. There was seemingly no end of factions springing up with various lengths of shelf life in both WCW and the WWF. D-Generation-X, each and every spin-off and parody of the nWo, The Alliance, even the J.O.B Squad had their logos printed on shirts. Wearing these clearly marked where these wrestlers’ allegiances lied, acting like a uniform to forge a team identity. As such, the embrace, or rejection of these could set up some very big moments. The nWo especially used this trope, handing out their t-shirts as an invitation to join their ranks. Sometimes you’d have the shocking turn of events where someone would betray their friends only to rip off their shirts, revealing the ‘nWo’ printed underneath. Of course, that wouldn’t always work out for them...
Of course, while this had the potential to make great moments, the passing around and switching of which nWo shirts you wore got pretty old after picking and switching between nWo Hollywood, nWo Wolfpac, nWo Black and White, nWo Elite, nWo 2000, or the Latino World Order. Luckily the Blue World Order were friends for life. Even though the nWo spectacularly self-destructed, its spirit lived on and facilitated the boom of one of New Japan’s biggest exports, the Bullet Club. Similar membership reveals were adopted by the Bullet Club, notably with AJ Styles debuting in New Japan by attacking Kazuchika Okada then subsequently unzipping his jacket to reveal the skull and cross-assault rifles beneath. However, with the Bullet Club, their influence towards changing the role of t-shirts in the pro wrestling industry extends far beyond that.
With their massive popularity extending far beyond Japan, they were understandably a huge mover of merchandise, with their logo variations adorning many a t-shirt. The sheer volume of sales ultimately led them to be picked up by pop-culture curios vendor Hot Topic and stocked all across the United States. It can't be overstated how huge a deal this was for the world of professional wrestling. For such a niche product within a niche medium to make it into mainstream suppliers was astounding. The success of these shirts very much indicated the international growth of New Japan, and, in my opinion, helped influence the viability of AEW by explicitly showing off the popularity of 'The Elite'.
Beyond the Bullet Club however, the past few years have also seen a simultaneous boom in t-shirt sales for independent wrestlers. Colt Cabana, the godfather of the indies, has helped pioneer this trend first through his personal website, before helping start up ProWrestlingTees in 2010. With t-shirts being perhaps the most simple form of merchandising, practically any wrestler out there can design and print their own, and with the likes of ProWrestlingTees and other online distributors, sell them to a large potential consumer-base. For many of your favourite independent wrestlers, merch money be a real difference maker in making their profession a realistic source of income. It wasn't too long ago that ProWrestlingTees announced that they had paid out an incredible $5,000,000 in royalties, a true testament to the impact that t-shirts and the selling of them makes on the current indie wrestling scene.
For me personally, as a consumer, it also provides that beautiful, warm fuzzy feeling you get from supporting your beloved artists. My first indie experience included meeting and getting a t-shirt from Trevor Lee (now NXT's Cameron Grimes) at a show in my not-remotely significant area in rural England. After solidifying himself as a favourite of mine following stand-out performances in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, I was jazzed to meet him. He could not have been sweeter, and being able to personally enact that transaction with him makes that article of clothing even more special for me.
In all, not only do wrestling shirts comprise a fair chunk of my wardrobe, but as a product they are ingrained in the culture of professional wrestling. They can act as a layer of visual storytelling and character building, adding to what is being said on a microphone or being acted out within the squared circle. As a form of merchandise, they can colour crowds like a pie chart of popularity, and act as a metric for measuring rising stars. But, perhaps most important of all, they can go a long way in supporting those that devote their lives to this sport we all love.