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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Beyonce, Rihanna sue over T-shirtsNew Zimbabwe.com, October 7th
Among the products named in the suit are T-shirts that feature the hooded faces of Beyonce and Williams and one of Rihanna with her index finger held up like a mustache. The lawsuit said it was especially egregious that the items remained for sale at...Read more
17 Times a Fashion Girl Told Us She Was HungryPOPSUGAR, October 7th
Because they aren't obsessed with just fashion, they are huge foodies who love to use the #nom hashtag, too. From coffee and wine to doughnuts and pizza, whatever your favorite food is, there's a tee for that. See the wave of food t-shirts about to...Read more
Sister Suffragette: 'Slave' T-Shirts Highlight White Feminism's Race ProblemThe Root, October 7th
I wasn't going to write about the white women wearing their white T-shirts to promote the white film about white feminism, but my black feminism wouldn't allow me to ignore it. Meryl Streep stars as British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst in the...Read more
The Artist Behind Deer Dana and Its Celebrity T-ShirtsNew York Times, October 7th
Claim to Fame Ms. Veraldi, along with Kevin Tekinel, her business partner, is a founder of DeerDana, a line of illustrated T-shirts and tote bags that feature cartoonish portraits of contemporary icons like Kanye West, Martin Scorsese, Jean-Michel...Read more
How Vintage T-Shirts Transformed My Personal StyleStyleCaster, October 7th
It was at this time that my sister—who's four years younger and was just starting college—had gotten very into deconstructing the best vintage T-shirts I'd ever seen (again, early aughts): slashing them, turning them into halter tops, cutting off the...Read more
Clothing retailer Uniqlo uses brain waves to match customers with t-shirtsCIO, October 6th
Japanese retailer Uniqlo is using a novel method to match t-shirts with potential buyers by analyzing their brain patterns. It's a marketer's dream to get inside the brain of a consumer, and a growing field -- dubbed neuromarketing -- focuses on using ...Read more
Son-in-law wears T-shirts and wonders why no promotionDetroit Free Press, October 6th
Dear Amy: Our daughter has been married for 10 years to a wonderful guy. They're great parents. So what's our problem? Well, our son-in-law has a college education and a very good job with one of the best firms in our area. He has applied for a...Read more
Trail Blazers wearing 'UCC' T-Shirts to honor Roseburg shooting victimsOregonLive.com, October 5th
The Trail Blazers are wearing T-Shirts to honor tributes to the victims of Thursday's mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg ahead of their first preseason game against the Sacramento Kings on Monday night. Nine people were killed on ...Read more