In the long, tangled web of fashion history, there are few garments that have had the influence and mass appeal of T-shirts (also called T shirts, t shirts, or tees for short). There is something about the basic nature of collarless cotton (or polyester—yuck!) that has allowed people for the past half century to champion causes, support teams, commemorate concerts, and show off what they believe in, all without saying a word.
Today, T-shirts surround us. They are given away for free at sporting events, used by colleges to promote themselves, and worn by packs of schoolchildren so their teachers can identify them.
T-shirts were not always a part of the mainstream, however. In fact, from their invention in the early 20th century as an undergarment for men in the military until the 1950s, wearing a T-shirt in public would have gotten you some sour looks.
It was not until 1954 when Marlon Brando wore a T-shirt on screen in “The Wild One,” and a year later when James Dean sported one in “Rebel Without a Cause,” that the notion of wearing T-shirts as outerwear gained acceptance. Maybe it was Brando and Dean’s sex appeal, or perhaps it was a sign of changing times, but the legendary photographs of both men in their tightly cropped T-shirts spurred a snowballing fad that is still going strong today.
In the decades that followed, T-shirts picked up steam from the rebellion and flower power of the 1960s and the consumerism of the 1970s. T-shirts became microphones for political activists, advertisements for companies and movies, and souvenirs for concert-goers.
Many T-shirt collectors today try to accumulate old rock concert T’s. While some of the most famous and collected rock T-shirts come from world-famous groups like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, concert T-shirts actually originated earlier: with The King himself.
One of Elvis’ fan clubs printed the first rock concert T-shirt in the late 1950s. Despite Presley’s popularity, rock concert or music personality T-shirts did not become fashionable until the late 1960s, when impresario Bill Graham promoted West Coast bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Some of the earliest and most collectible vintage T-shirts advertise those groups and others associated with the San Francisco music scene. Vintage tie-dyed shirts from this era are especially prized...
Earlier rock T-shirts tended to be basic and informational. Lynyrd Skynyrd broke that mold with its famous shirt based on the Jack Daniels whiskey logo. Black Sabbath shattered conventions even further with its baroque, hyper-busy T-shirts.
The list of collectible rock groups is lengthy, but a few with the most memorable T-shirts include The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and Pink Floyd. Rock T-shirts are not only desired by T-shirt collectors, but also by collectors of music or specific band memorabilia.
At the same time that rock tees were gaining popularity, political T-shirts were entering mainstream culture. Today we have all become accustomed to seeing the faces of politicians and slogans for various causes on T-shirts, but this trend only began in the 1960s.
Most famous are Che Guevara T-shirts, which were first worn by Fidel Castro supporters in 1967 but have since become symbols for idealism and martyrdom. Guevara T-shirts are easy to come by, but few collectors feel complete without one. Modern day T-shirts of defiance are comparatively tamer and include those with the “Parental Control” label on them, or punk and skate T’s made by companies like Bones, Vision Street Wear, Gator, and Thrasher.
As with the Che T-shirts, oftentimes these simple articles of clothing capture the cultural sentiment of a particular time and place, so many collectors use T-shirts to literally collect history. For this reason, the early screen-prints are popular collectibles. At the time they were made, these shirts were state of the art—they could be produced in minutes while the customer waited. Some of the most popular early screen-prints included novelty T-shirts with instructions for solving Rubik’s Cubes, but many more featured unique, personalized messages.
Concert promoters and bands used T-shirts early on to create brand awareness, but Hollywood turned the practice into an art. Movies like “Batman,” released in 1989, made T-shirts that not only promoted the film, but also appealed to T-shirt collectors as well as collectors of film memorabilia and comic-books.
Of course T-shirts are also associated with sports teams. Sports-memorabilia collectors will often purchase shirts to wear to games, to hang in their homes, or to commemorate an especially sweet championship. For example, many New York Yankees fans had to have a shirt trumpeting the team’s status as World Series Champions in 2009, just as Boston Red Sox fans did in 2004.
While T-shirts are usually associated with men’s clothing, they are also designed for women. Women’s tees are often given flattering so-called “baby doll” cuts, and many women wear oversize T-shirts in lieu of pajamas as bedtime attire. Mainstream fashion companies such as Gap and Abercrombie have tried to capitalize on the popularity of T-shirts by selling shirts to men and women alike with their brands and logos on them, while some websites such as Threadless produce T-shirts in limited editions that routinely sell out.
What just about all T-shirts have in common, though, is their fragile nature. Even straightforward designs like the one for “Batman,” which features a bright yellow logo on a black shirt, are susceptible to damage, which can devalue them. The inked rubber surface on shirts is easily damaged—it can stick to adjoining surfaces and often breaks down faster than the shirt it adheres to. Many collectors will sprinkle their most prized shirts with talcum powder to avoid the sticking issues.
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Love 'Trek'? Love T-shirts? You're in luckUSA TODAY, March 10th
Since 2012 the fan-created T-shirt site We Love Fine has been releasing cool shirts inspired by episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series. Astoundingly, all 80 shirts were designed by one man: artist Juan Ortiz. The collection mixes his appreciation...Read more
Shockers fans rush to buy MVC Championship T-shirtsKWCH, March 10th
Tad's Locker Room in Wichita placed its order for about 700 championship T-shirts several weeks ago and as soon as the Shockers clenched the title Sunday afternoon, Tad Snarenberger, owner of Tad's, hit the road to Kansas City to pick them up and have ...Read more
Lady Pirate Championship T-ShirtsTrenton Republican Times, March 10th
The North Central Missouri College women's basketball team is selling championship t-shirts commemorating their Region 16 and District P championships. Orders are being taken now through noon on Tuesday. The cost of the shirts is $12 for a t-shirt, $15 ...Read more
Haitians Pose for the Camera in T-Shirts Decked With Corny SlogansComplex.com, March 10th
Remember the days when wearing T-shirts emblazoned with cheesy sayings was a cool thing? Though this trend has since become unfashionable in the United States, the corny garments reemerge in Pepe, a thought provoking photo series by Institute ...Read more
Wichita State's conference championship T-shirts have a hilarious mistakeUSA TODAY, March 10th
Wichita State topped Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference championship Sunday, reaching an incredible 34-0, and likely securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Shockers will be the first undefeated team to enter the tournament since ...Read more
Utah town declines prosecution over risque T-shirtsThe Idaho Statesman, March 8th
Judy Cox sits last month for a portrait next to a stack of T-shirts with what she believes are pornographic designs Cox purchased the entire stock of T-shirts for $567 from the PacSun store in Orem, Utah, believing their display broke Orem's decency code...Read more
PacSun T-shirts not indecent, legallyDaily Herald, March 7th
OREM -- Orem City will not file charges against PacSun for displaying risque T-shirts in their display windows at the University Mall. The decision came after a complaint filed by Orem resident Judy Cox with the department of public safety. Cox...Read more
This Is the Sexy T-Shirt Adidas Was Forced to Stop SellingTIME, February 26th
Adidas has agreed to stop selling two T-shirts ahead of this year's World Cup after Brazil's tourism board criticized the shirts for encouraging sexual tourism. Brazil's tourism board formally requested the German multinational apparel company stop...Read more