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T-Shirt Code

Old startup and company T-shirts have a big cachet in Silicon Valley.

There's a joke in Silicon Valley: "How many apple employees does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Four. One to do it, and three to design a T-shirt commemorating the event." That's not much of an exaggeration. In fact, you could say that the history of Silicon Valley is being printed on 100% cotton. T-shirts mark every competitive battle, every product release, every company party.

"Every shirt tells a story," says James House (james@sentience.com), 37, a software-project manager and a Valley veteran. His own collection of more than 30 company and product T-shirts is modest, he says, compared with those of many of his colleagues. But not all shirts are created equal. The software T has developed a distinct symbolic hierarchy. In ascending order of insider status and industry savvy are the company-spirit T, the beta-tester T, and the project code-name T.

But the ultimate wearable statement is the one commemorating a failed company or product. "These are the real status symbols," says House. Worn at the right moment among the right people, "dead-company shirts show that you've been around and know what's going on in the industry." Take House's "533 MHZ" shirt, procured from the upstairs suite of Exponential Technologies Inc., a briefly celebrated chip maker, at MacWorld 1997 in San Francisco. House found it "very depressing" when the company went out of business, but says, "I have one bit of solace: a really cool T-shirt."

A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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