I’ve spoken before on here about my love of cheap clothing — or, more specifically I suppose, of not spending a lot of money on clothes. It means that I’ve wiled away a large portion of my allotted time in thrift stores and swap shops over the years. Before buying anything new, I’ll typically scour the internet in search of a deal and may or may not have compiled a spreadsheet designed to optimise purchases based on seasonal sales dates. In fact, looking down at the hastily-assembled outfit I put on prior to typing these words — Dickies work pants, Hanes Beefy-T, Wrangler western shirt, and a second-hand cardigan — I realised each individual component cost somewhere between £10 and £40 when I bought them. Not necessarily Primark prices, I grant you, but it’s not bad.
I don’t only like wearing more affordable clothing brands, I also enjoy looking at their various histories since less glamorous outfitters can often go ignored, melting into the background and escaping our notice. One such brand in my own life has long been Fruit of the Loom. For years I have seen its familiar label on various tees and sweatshirts that have worked their way through my wardrobe. A handful of these still lie folded in my closet as we speak, yet I have rarely stopped to spare them any thought. Then, at some point during the pandemic, like seemingly everyone else stuck at home at the time, I started scoping out various heather sweats online. I was immediately overwhelmed by the options available and quickly reverted to my base instinct of buying the cheapest, most reliable-seeming pair I could find. I duly bought a pair of Fruit of the Loom track pants and, owing to the heavy use I’ve gotten out of them since, soon chalked them up as one of my more successful bargain buys.
Every time I’ve caught sight of one of those cornucopia-like labels since, I’ve made a mental note to look deeper into its brand history, not least due to some vague awareness of it stretching a long way back. 1851, in fact, was the year that brothers Benjamin and Robert Knight began operating their first mill producing cotton cloth and textiles out of Warwick, Rhode Island. The business was originally called the B.B. and R. Knight Corporation but five years later changed its name to the more memorable moniker still used today after Robert visited a friend and customer, Rufus Skeel, the proprietor of a dry goods store in New York’s Hudson Valley, whose daughter had taken to painting local apple varieties on some of the bolts of cloth procured from the Knight brothers and reselling them to popular acclaim.
‘Fruit of the Loom’ was eventually registered as trademark number 418 in 1871, just one year after trademark laws were first passed by the US Congress, making it one of America’s oldest brands, arriving well ahead of Coca-Cola, Disney, or the Ford Motor Company, in addition to predating the invention of the light bulb, cameras, and paper clips.
This was a period preceding mass-scale manufacture, meaning homemakers typically made clothing and linens themselves domestically. For as long as this proved true, Fruit of the Loom’s broadcloth remained a well-known product in high demand. But with the rise of the manufactured apparel industry, women started favouring ready-made products instead of hand-made ones sewn at home, so the company’s original market began to dwindle. Their trademark remained popular, however, and so, beginning in 1928, Fruit of the Loom started licensing its name to various manufacturers of finished garments.
The most successful of these was one Jacob Goldfarb, a young immigrant who started the sports brand Everlast in 1910 aged just 17, followed in 1926 by the Union Underwear Company, which specialised in making low-priced, high-quality union suits. Goldfarb purchased a 25-year licence for the Fruit of the Loom trademark in 1938 and, under his stewardship, it went on to create pioneering products like multi-pack boxer shorts and the first undergarments to be advertised on network television on the Today Show in 1955. In time, Union’s underclothes became synonymous with the Fruit of the Loom label and — over several decades and via many convoluted corporate take-overs — was eventually officially renamed Fruit of the Loom in 1985.
By this point, Fruit of the Loom’s brand recognition had continued to grow via high-profile endorsements by the likes of sportscaster Howard Cosell and comedian Terry Thomas. In 1975, they enjoyed further success with the launch of their famous ‘Fruit of the Loom Guys’ TV ad campaign featuring three men in costume as an apple, a bunch of grapes, and an autumn leaf — all elements of the Fruit of the Loom trademark. The commercials cemented the brand as a household name, purportedly giving them 98 percent recognition and doubling their market share for boys’ and men’s underwear.
The 1980s saw Fruit of the Loom transform from an underwear manufacturer to the all-round apparel company it is today. It did not manage to escape the large-scale decline of the American textile industry in the 1990s, however, and, after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1999, it was bought by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Corporation in 2002 for about $835 million. Today it remains among Berkshire’s holdings, which has afforded it enough stability to regain its place among the leading manufacturers of underwear and casualwear globally with some 28 000 employees worldwide.
It means that there’s a good chance a Fruit of the Loom product is in a closet in your house right now. There certainly is in mine and I have been taking its unassuming and ubiquitous presence for granted all of my life. Now, though, having finally thought to look at what lies behind its curious title and botanical logo, that all-too-familiar label has come to represent for me what it really is: the mark of one of America’s oldest manufacturers. Not just a disposable piece of clothing, in other words, but a small piece of history.
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