A Fad to Dye For: The Brief Life of Hypercolor Clothing

Shadow Shifter, YouTube
Shadow Shifter, YouTube

There's something counterintuitive about a clothing line for young adults that could exhibit outward signs of embarrassment. A shirt, for example, that changes color as a person sweats would seem like something no teenager would want to wear. Yet apparel company Generra struck gold with Hypercolor, their line of thermochromic apparel dyed with a patented process that allowed the cotton fabric to react to spikes in the wearer's body temperature.

It wasn’t just sweat. If someone placed their hand on the shirt, they would leave a handprint that looked almost irradiated. Hugs would deposit lines of color across backs. Even breathing on the fabric caused it to change color. It was interactive “mood” clothing, and for a brief period of time in 1991, it was one of the hottest trends in apparel.

Products that respond to the wearer's emotions or behavior are not a new concept. In 1975, a “mood ring” was introduced that purportedly changed color based on the user’s temperament using a heat-sensitive liquid crystal. Soon after, mood lipsticks began appearing in cosmetics aisles. Freezy Freakies, a line of winter gloves with images that materialized in cold weather, gripped the nation in the 1980s.

Freezy Freakies used thermochromic ink, a methodology that was similar to how Hypercolor clothing managed to change appearance. Generra, which was founded by former executives of the Brittania clothing label in 1980, struck upon the idea after coming across a process developed by Japan's Matsui Shikiso chemical company. First, a permanent dye would be used on a cotton garment—blue, for example. Then a thermochromatic dye would be added, with microcapsules bonding to the fabric. That dye would typically be made of leuco dye, which can appear colorless, along with acid and dissociable salt dissolved in a fatty alcohol named 1-Dodecanol.

The 1-Dodecanol is solid at temperatures below 75.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Above 75.2 degrees, it reacts with the salt, causing the previously colorless leuco dye to take on a new color based on light absorption and reflection in the fabric. If the leuco dye is yellow and the shirt is blue, the warmed spot will appear to be green.

Naturally, few kids cared much about the science behind it—they just knew their T-shirt could change colors. Generra became the exclusive licensee of the Hypercolor technology in the United States and began a heavy promotional campaign in late 1990, blanketing MTV and teen magazines like Seventeen and Thrasher with print ads for the color-shifting apparel that read: “Hypercolor, hypercool.”

The marketing assault created heavy anticipation for the official debut of Hypercolor in January 1991. Available at retail locations, the clothing typically bore the Hypercolor insignia or no logo at all. Prospective buyers could sample the thermochromatic action in stores. Even better, they could do it in schools, where kids who had bought the shirts walked the hallways and acted as living billboards for the line.

“Everybody was touching it and breathing on it and stuff and trying to get it to change colors,” Courtney Signorella, a 12-year-old customer and student at Fort Myers Middle School in Fort Myers, Florida, told the News-Press in July 1991 of her classmates' reaction to her Hypercolor gear. The clothes also changed color in air conditioning, under the sun, and during exercise.

Steve Miska, Generra's chairman at the time, dismissed concerns the clothing could be a potential neon sign of nervousness. After testing the garments on his own employees, he felt the color changes in armpits were blotchy and not terribly noticeable. Even though they made shorts and jeans, there was no apparent issue with any kind of discoloration in groin areas. For a potentially controversial piece of apparel, Hypercolor got by without a scratch.

The only problem? Generra underestimated just how enthralled people would be. The company projected $20 million in sales for 1991. By April of that year, they had sold $50 million in Hypercolor items, from shirts ($24) to tank tops ($15) to shorts ($34). A spin-off line, Hypergrafix, used images that would appear with a temperature spike. All told, the company did $105 million in wholesale revenue for that year, over five times what they had anticipated.

But Hypercolor's success came at a price. There was a shortage of the dyes used, and a backlog of orders that needed to be filled. Generra added employees and new manufacturing facilities in their home base of Seattle but wound up meeting only half of the demand. By the time production ramped back up, consumer enthusiasm for Hypercolor was beginning to wane.

A Hypercolor t-shirt with a handprint is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After the initial novelty of seeing handprints or color changes wore off, the shirts weren’t much different from other apparel in closets. And if the fascination for the clothing didn’t fade, the dye soon did. Repeated washings or drying in machines (which wasn’t recommended) frequently diluted the reaction, turning the clothing into a purple-brown oddity. Younger buyers were also gravitating toward licensed sports apparel, like NBA shirts, as well as fashion trends offered by outlets like the Gap.

“There’s nothing trendy about Hypercolor,” Miska told the Chicago Tribune in 1991, at the height of the product's popularity. Little did he know how true those words would soon become.

By 1992, the fad was over and Generra declared bankruptcy, selling off its screen-printing plant and licensing a company named Seattle T-Shirt to make Hypercolor apparel for an increasingly shrinking consumer base.

Heat-reactive clothing has never disappeared entirely. In 2008, a number of manufacturers, including American Apparel and Puma, tried to resurrect the style with shirts, dresses, and sneakers. Currently, a line of clothing under the brand name Shadow Shifter has taken up the baton, offering shirts and other products that react to both temperature and water. Hypercolor was a thermochromatic flash in the pan, despite Generra’s optimism.

A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

The Great Bart Simpson T-Shirt School Ban of 1990

Courtesy of The Captain's Vintage

At Lutz Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio, principal William Krumnow took to the public address system to deliver an important message. It was April 1990, late in the school year, but Krumnow’s announcement couldn’t wait. Over the intercom, he declared there would be a ban on T-shirts featuring Bart Simpson, the rebellious breakout star of The Simpsons.

Specifically, Krumnow was concerned with a shirt that featured Bart aiming a slingshot with the word underachiever emblazoned in quotes above him. “And proud of it, man!” Bart said. This, Krumnow felt, was an unnecessary bit of subversion in a place of learning.

"To be proud of being an incompetent is a contraction of what we stand for," Krumnow told Deseret News in May of that year. "We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids … the show teaches the wrong things to students."

Krumnow was not alone. School district administrators in Florida, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. were cracking down on the surge in Bart shirts, fearing his status as a miscreant would be the wrong kind of role model for kids to emulate.

 

The apparel ban was a result of the success of The Simpsons, which had premiered months earlier on December 17, 1989 and featured a dysfunctional nuclear family consisting of Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. It was an immediate hit for the fledging Fox network and led to a number of merchandising deals.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

While the entire cast of the show was marketable, it was 10-year-old Bart who became the licensing phenomenon. An estimated 15 million Bart shirts were sold in 1990 alone, and there was no mystery as to why the character appealed to kids: He loved skateboarding. He hated school. He was a mirror image of millions of students across America. But unlike many of those students, Bart refused to censor himself, wielding a sharp tongue to match his spiky hair.

“Eat my shorts,” read one of the shirts. “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” asked another.

While some of the shirts, which were priced from $11 to $14, weren’t as inflammatory—Bart urging “Don’t have a cow, man” was the top-seller—the more incendiary designs were what upset school officials. The language was inconsistent with what school districts considered to be appropriate attire, and several dug deep to justify prohibiting students from wearing them. They cited concerns that other students might find the words objectionable or offensive and believed Bart's rogue attitude was incompatible with a respectful environment.

At Memorial Junior High School in Lansing, Michigan, principal James Shrader got on the intercom to inform students the shirts would not be allowed. At Burnham Elementary in Burnham, Illinois, district superintendent—or, as Ralph Wiggum might say, district Super Nintendo—Al Vega was pleased no students had even attempted to wear the shirts.

“Hopefully it’s because parents feel the same way I do,” Vega said. “Why would parents allow kids to wear those to school? I, as a parent, am not going to let my kid wear that to school.”

 

Not all parents were on board with the ban. Orange, California's Jeannette Manning told People she was considering buying a shirt for her son “on principle.” Another mother, Maira Romero, couldn't understand why her 11-year-old son Alex was being reprimanded for wearing the shirt. "I’d much rather have him wearing a Bart Simpson [shirt] than one of those rock and roll T-shirts with the skull and crossbones on it,” Romero said.

Cartoonist and creator of "The Simpsons" stands 1992, with a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson
'The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening stands next to a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson in 1992.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Child development experts weren’t so sure, either. Some pointed out that when something is labeled off-limits, it becomes more attractive to teens who are prone to rebellion. Ignoring it and dismissing it as a fad was a better option, some said. At Wells High School in Chicago, principal David Peterson dismissed the idea the shirts had any kind of negative influence.

“It’s like a kid saying, ‘I hate school,’” he said. “Am I going to suspend him for that? I don’t think so.”

Students caught wearing the Bart shirts faced a variety of repercussions. At Brookwood Junior High in Glenwood, Illinois, teachers ordered students wearing the shirts to call their parents and have them bring a change of clothing. Other schools forced kids to turn the shirts inside-out. Some had teachers cover the offending words with tape. The controversy grew so widespread that by the summer of 1990, retail chain JCPenney decided to take the “underachiever” shirts off shelves in kid’s sizes. What some had dubbed the Bartlash had reached new heights.

 

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, thought the shirt prohibition was silly. “I have no comment,” he said when asked about the backlash. “My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” But Groening couldn’t resist pointing out that the word “underachiever” appeared on the shirt in quotes, indicating that it was his (fictional) school officials who had given him that label. Bart was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

“He didn’t call himself an underachiever,” Groening said. “He does not aspire to be an underachiever. If you’ll recall, this last season, Bart did save France.” (In “The Crepes of Wrath,” which aired in April 1990, Bart is sent to France as a foreign exchange student and exposes his two winemaking hosts who spike their product with antifreeze. He learns French in the process.)

While The Simpsons has gone on to broadcast another 30 seasons of television (and counting), observers who considered the shirts to be fads were correct. The furor quickly died down and kids found new iconography to wear. By June 1991, Simpsons shirts had been discarded in exchange for the cast of Fox’s other hit series, the sketch comedy In Living Color. (Homey the Clown was a bestseller.)

Today, you can find vintage Bart shirts on eBay or online clothing shops like The Captain's Vintage, which offers a classic Bart "Who the hell are you?" shirt in white for $89.99.

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