beer t-shirt
People in line to buy beer t-shirts at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

Many of those gathering at the annual Great American Beer Festival along with the countless other beer gatherings held around the country will plan out their drinking schedules in advance. Carefully pouring over programs to make sure those special brewery offerings wind up in their tasting glass. It would seem that just as many give as serious thought to their wardrobe choices, choosing to dress in costume, don a favorite brewery T-shirt, or matching uniform if in a group.

If only fashion icon Edith Head could see them now in their entire splendor: people sporting what would pass as ‘normal’ clothes. People wearing moderately unusual outfits displaying a quiet yet distinct beer pride. Fest goers in full-out foam beer bottle costumes, capes, monk-style robes, colorful knee-high socks, and a certain Dr. Seuss-inspired shirt. These outfits are often not complete without a braided pretzel necklace.

Thousands of people of all ages attend beer fests in America every year. While it may seem silly to some, there are myriad reasons fest attendees do it up. When approached, many beer fest revelers will share that they dress alike to better spot each other in a crowded venue. Some will state they simply like to dress up for fun since they find the festival to be just that: fun. Some folks dress en masse, for both a team spirit element as well as easy visibility.

Washingtonian Jennifer Velasquez and friends dress in a color-coded fashion when attending festivals so they can easily spot each other in a crowd. Beth Manghi of Virginia said she and her partner wear “a dirndl and we found a nice pair of [well] cut lederhosen online from Germany for me … for our own home Oktoberfest and Richmond, Virginia Oktoberfest.”

The big question is why? Why dress up for something as normally relaxed and laid back as a beer festival? The responses are many and telling into the brain of the beer lover.

Research tells us that dressing the part, for whatever the part may be, is an outward reflection of many characteristics, from uber personal to very public. In his book The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do, Colin McDowell covers a lot of ground of the reasoning and trends of what we have worn throughout the years. An article by Fodor’s notes that the attire at the Great American Beer Festival “is the Oscars of beer.”

Enter the Beer T-shirt

In addition to all sorts of costume finery, beer fest folks love to wear the beer gear of the brands they support. They wear beer T-shirts both short and long sleeve, beer sweatshirts, beer hats of all makes and models, and beer jewelry. They sport handmade vintage beer can crocheted caps, skirts made of beer tees, and socks emblazoned with “BEER,” running vertically down their calves. Some people even select wearable branded goods for particular beer events and fests for specific reasons. Beer pride knows no limits and dressing the part of the zealous beer geek runs rampant. When these ideas are broken down, one is left with the big idea: The Psychology of the Beer T-shirt. The psychology of the beer tee—or more accurately stated, the psychology of beer wearables, tells us much about the people who enjoy beer.

For one, they like to tell the world which brands and ideas they support and endorse. Ask a woman wearing a Drop-In Brewery tee if she likes beer and she’s likely to stare at you for asking such an obvious question. Tap a man on the shoulder who’s wearing a Ladyface Alehouse shirt if he likes beer, and you’re sure to get a snappy comeback somewhere in the realm of yes.

When one digs into the beginnings of the T-shirt, one finds that humble is a perfect word to describe it. T-shirts got their start rather quietly as a working undershirt. Previously donned by miners and dockworkers, the shirts gained a popular and permanent place in our hearts and closets after the Spanish-American War (1898). Service members were issued short-sleeved white cotton undershirts to wear beneath their uniforms. When work necessitated removing heavier and hotter outer clothes, especially in enclosed spaces like submarines and in tropical climates, the jackets came off to expose the tee and leave the outerwear unsoiled. Thus the new working T-shirt was introduced and the idea of a pragmatic lightweight shirt has stuck ever since.

Fast-forward from the 19th century to today and one can see the garment everywhere. It’s universally worn by women, men and children across the globe. Along with a rapidly developing modern American beer landscape came the beer tee hot on its tails. People fell in love with the idea of using a previously blue-collar-identified working garment with style, fashion and comfort. They fell in love hard, fast and permanently. Everywhere you look today a T-shirt can be spotted on a willing wearer.

Affection for the tee has many faces as well and the reasons for beer tee love can run the gamut. It may be a person wears the tee of a brand to which they have an emotional attachment. Perhaps the wearer really likes the design, whether or not they like the beer (gasp!). Maybe they like the feel of the material or the cut of the shirt. It could have easily been a gift given to them by a loved one and they either want to wear it or feel compelled to do so. The reasons people love beer tees and the reasons of when and where they wear them are as vast at the growing modern beer landscape.

Past The Beginnings

Beyond the tee garnering it’s name from its simple shape of the letter T, one may ask why the T-shirt has infiltrated and has incredible staying power. People show off their beer enthusiasm by donning a vintage Miller High Life jacket, Dogfish Head or Pabst footie pajamas and beer headbands. All the same, the beer tee seems to have a solid place in American culture. So what is it about the T-shirt that makes it an everyday and almost every occasion member of wardrobes everywhere?

Being easy to clean and usually inexpensive are two traits that surely lend to the tees popularity. People are finicky about fashions and attitudes and still return over and over to the omnipresent tee. When one explores the question “why the T-shirt?” there’s a lot more meaning and substance than one would consider at first glance.

The crux of this discovery is to identify the intersection of the ever-present tee with the beer enthusiast. Both beer and the T-shirt are virtually everywhere. Truly, one only has to look through the pages of magazines and websites with images across the globe to see that where there are people, there are T-shirts. And where there are people and T-shirts, there is also beer. Or maybe it’s where there are people and beer there are beer T-shirts. Whatever it may be, the examination therefore of the two together proves to be an unignorable curiosity. Like peas and carrots, beer and tee shirts go together.

On the surface it would seem that people simply want to show off the pride they have in the brands they enjoy, like and otherwise support. Under the surface, while that theory is certainly supported, there are more rationales for the tee chosen to parade about in. Beer fan and supporter Kris McDowell of Portland, OR, has her own ‘rules’ for beer T-shirts. They include only purchasing and wearing shirts from breweries and brewpubs visited, having enjoyed their beers. She won’t buy a shirt no matter how much she likes the place or the beer if they don’t have female cut shirts. As a self-professed smaller female “even a men’s small is way too big and not flattering in the slightest.”

She went on to share a bit more philosophy of her “why” stating she tries not to wear a shirt of a competitor if that is the only place she’s going. And if she’s headed to a beer festival or something similar where a lot of breweries will be represented, that rule goes out the window and “I’ll wear whatever is best suited for the temperature or my mood for the day.”

John Braxton, a beer enthusiast from North Carolina, buys shirts to support a brewery. In addition to that direct brewery support, the tees generate a good deal of conversation, which he welcomes and enjoys.

Beer enthusiasts want to share their visible support with others who share the same affinity for the beverage and a T-shirt is a very obvious way to do so. Beer’s wide ranging appeal encourages engagement and the wearing of a beer tee shirt to share one’s affinity with the world simply opens that door to do so.

“They open up conversations with others that have visited that brewery, or just like the shirt,” says Rebecca from Tucson, AZ. “I pretty much wear them everywhere—yoga, running, out, beer events, etc. The most unique shirt I have is an old boy scouts uniform I turned in to ‘Beer Scouts’ and have patches from breweries, beer related stuff. My husband and I wore them for Halloween.”

Ginger Johnson travels the continent educating pros and consumers about beer and marketing. Read more and reach her at or on Twitter @WomenEnjoyBeer.