The Difference Between A $5 White Tee And A $125 White Tee

The answer isn't that simple, but we spoke to experts to get to the bottom of this wardrobe staple.
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If you’ve ever looked at a $5 H&M white T-shirt, you’ll notice it doesn’t look all that different from a plain white designer tee that sells for upwards of $300. What’s the deal with the price difference? Is the designer tee just ridiculously marked up, or is there more to it than that?

There are plenty of factors involved in determining the retail price of a T-shirt, many of which the average consumer probably doesn’t think about while shopping. Everything from the type of fabric to the manufacturing process to the branding can have an effect on how much we pay. How do we know that what we’re getting is worth it? Or, alternatively, what exactly are we paying for?

The answers aren’t that simple, but we spoke to a few experts who gave us some insight into the world of the wardrobe staple.

Let’s start with the fabric.

“Fabric is the largest cost component of most wearing apparel,” Margaret Bishop, a professor at Parsons School of Design at The New School and at The Fashion Institute of Technology, told HuffPost, adding that fiber “is the largest cost component of most fabric.”

So what exactly does that mean? Well, let’s look at cotton, one of the most common fabrics used for basic white T-shirts. Preeti Gopinath, associate professor of textiles and director of the MFA textile program at Parsons School of Design at The New School, explained that higher grades of cotton will cost more than lower grades.

The grading, she said, is “usually based on the length of the staple, which is the length of each individual baby fiber in [the fabric]. The longer the fiber, the smoother the yarn will be. If the fiber is short, many short fibers twist together and you’ll have more joints in the yarn. The more joints, the more texture.”

Then there’s the variety and quality of cotton ― is it Sea Island cotton? Egyptian cotton? Pima cotton? That choice further affects the cost, and if elastane is added to the cotton for stretch and better recovery ability, that adds to the cost as well.

There are also branded fibers, which, you guessed it, cost more than unbranded ones (similar to generic versus brand-name pharmaceuticals). For instance, the brand name for pima cotton is Supima, and that name has a marketing cost associated with it, Bishop explained.

Processes called carding and combing also add a cost to the final product. Carding cotton is the standard process of brushing fibers before twisting them into yarn. That can be followed by combing, which gets rid of any shorts bits in the yarn and gives it a smooth finish, Gopinath explained. Combing leads to a smoother, higher-quality yarn that’s also more expensive.

On top of all that, Bishop and Gopinath noted, if cotton is 100 percent organic, it will come with a higher price tag. Something that is made of a blend of cotton and a synthetic fabric, like polyester, on the other hand, will likely be cheaper; polyester and other synthetic fabrics are cheaper fibers, Gopinath said.

It’s not necessarily true that a designer T-shirt will be made with the most expensive cotton available, but, as Bishop explained, “it’s more likely that if it’s a very low price, the quality is not going to be as good as it will be for many of the more expensive brands.”

Workers dye cloth for T-shirts at a factory in Narayangonj, Bangladesh.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Workers dye cloth for T-shirts at a factory in Narayangonj, Bangladesh.

Then there’s manufacturing.

Both the labor involved in making a T-shirt and the country in which it’s manufactured play a role in determining the cost of a product, though one much more than the other.

According to Bishop, “Many people erroneously think the labor cost makes a big difference in the cost of a T-shirt, but the labor is a very small portion of the overall cost of the garment.”

If a brand is made overseas, Gopinath expanded, the labor may add practically nothing to the final price of a T-shirt. “It’s negligible,” she said, noting that it may add “a few cents ... if it’s a mass-produced T-shirt made in Bangladesh.”

“If we see how much an American is paid, even at the lowest minimum wage of $8 an hour, if you convert that into Indian or Bangladeshi rupees, no one is paid that kind of money [in India or Bangladesh],” Gopinath said. “That’s like a king’s ransom already for the person overseas. They’re paid, in our equivalency, maybe a dollar or 50 cents, not even per T-shirt, but maybe per hour or per a few hours of work.”

Again, not every single cheap T-shirt is made in India or Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is significantly lower than in the U.S., but it’s extremely common. Just take a look at any of your H&M and Forever 21 tees, and you’ll notice many of them say “Made in Bangladesh.”

The economy of scale also plays a role in figuring out the overall cost. That means if a company produces 10,000 shirts, it would be cheaper than producing only 10 shirts, Gopinath explained. So, if the same mass-produced shirt made in Bangladesh for $5 was made in the U.S. in a small batch of, say, 20, the cost of labor and the retail price would be much higher, she added.

There’s an ethical component involved, too. As we’ve learned over the years, the garment industry, especially in places like Bangladesh, doesn’t have a great track record for providing safe work environments or fair wages for employees. Yet, many of us still bring those $5 T-shirts up to the cash register and revel in our thriftiness.

And while we tend to associate “Made in America” with higher prices, Bishop said that doesn’t always need to be the case. She said that in some of her research, she found that people were able to produce T-shirts in the United States affordably while still making a profit.

When it comes to the country of manufacture, it affects the overall cost largely because of import duties and shipping costs, Bishop said.

“Import duty on clothing is determined by the garment style, fiber content and country of manufacture. If a T-shirt is manufactured in a country that has a free trade agreement with the United States, the import duty will be zero,” Bishop said. “That same T-shirt, manufactured in another country, could have an import duty of 20 percent or more, depending on the fiber content and country of manufacture.”

There are also shipping costs involved with sending T-shirts from other countries to the United States. Bishop said that shipping white T-shirts from China, Vietnam, Thailand or Bangladesh to the U.S. will cost more in time and money than shipping from Haiti, Mexico or Central America.

And, of course, there’s marketing.

As is the case with many products in the fashion and beauty industry, you pay for the name. So, if you go to H&M knowing it’s a fast-fashion retailer, you expect to pay $10 or less for a white T-shirt. But if you buy luxury goods from brands like The Row (which sells a T-shirt for $320) or Maison Margiela (which sells a three-pack of T-shirts for $340), you’re paying for the prestige on top of the product.

“Each brand or retailer has its own overhead, its own profit margin requirements and its own brand values,” Bishop said. “Some brands prioritize delivering a good quality product to its consumers at an affordable price, others prioritize creating brand buzz and status, and sometimes use high prices as a part of doing so.”

Does that mean a higher price tag is always worth it?

Not necessarily.

In some cases, sure, a $100 or $200 T-shirt may warrant such a price tag. For instance, Gopinath said, if a company is using eco-friendly and sustainable processes to make T-shirts in small batches in the U.S. with a small ecological footprint, those products would definitely cost more. But at the same time, “you can get what looks like the same thing made in Bangladesh or India for $5.”

As Bishop noted, “You could have a very expensive brand that actually makes and sells low-quality product, and you could have a more affordable brand that sells very high-quality product.”

There are some brands out there, like Everlane and Kotn, trying to bridge the gap between quality and affordability, without allowing unfair and unethical treatment in the manufacturing process.

We spoke to Benjamin Sehl, co-founder of Kotn, a clothing company offering cotton basics designed in Canada and made in Egypt, who said if a consumer wants to take care of their garments and have them for a long time, “they should probably be investing in better quality pieces that are going to last and not fall apart in the wash.”

“The more people that see the value in better-quality garments, especially ones that are ethically made,” Sehl said, the more they will vote with their dollars. Then brands will be motivated to take steps toward quality goods and ethical practices.

He agreed it’s difficult for a consumer to determine whether an expensive T-shirt is better than a cheaper one, but he encouraged everyone to do a little research into their go-to brands.

According to Bishop, there are some things to look for when you want to make sure you’re getting a quality tee.

For instance, if you hold the fabric up to the light, the yarn is generally much more uniform and smooth in a high-quality fabric. You can also train your fingertips to feel the fabric. A nice quality T-shirt should feel smoother, she said.

Now that you’re armed with knowledge to assess the value of your next white T-shirt, the choices are up to you.