Besides a face tattoo of your favorite band, rock T-shirts offer the best combination of artwork and advertising, acting like a membership badge that confers insider status. Some of the earliest T-shirts made to celebrate a musician were produced by Elvis Presley’s fan clubs during the late 1950s, just as the T-shirt was becoming an emblematic style choice for rebellious teenagers.
As rock-n-roll music spread, the 1959 invention of plastisol (a durable ink designed for use on fabric) cemented the concert T-shirt’s place in history. San Francisco-based promoter Bill Graham was one of the first to recognize the rock tee’s moneymaking potential toward the end of the 1960s, when he started printing shirts for popular West Coast acts like Jefferson Airplane.
But the golden era of the rock-n-roll T-shirt really began in the 1970s, as they evolved from free swag made for a band and its crew to a collectible piece of merchandise every fan needed. During the following decades, shirts were sold at every major show and tour, typically featuring imagery that let fans easily identify themselves as followers of an artist and their music. Groups like the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd had shirts that showcased psychedelia; punk acts like the Ramones, the Clash, and Sex Pistols went for an anarchist, DIY look; T-shirts for Ozzie Osborne, Mötley Crüe, and the Misfits featured darker and more violent graphics.
By the 1980s, fans of popular bands like the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Van Halen, Journey, and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts all wanted their favorite artist’s faces emblazoned across their chests, as did those who liked music as diverse as Kiss, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Metallica, and David Bowie. Today, shirts for artists like Iron Maiden, the Police, and Nirvana continue to draw top dollar due to their powerful graphics and rabid fan-base. But for a true music geek, the holy grail is a concert shirt from a show you’ve actually seen in person; while many retailers make reproduction shirts, such knockoffs will always lack the “I was there” power of an authentic vintage rock shirt.