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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Black Tie Guide

The Black Tie Guide

Peter Marshall became an authority on formalwear out of necessity — he needed a tux to wear on the maiden transat… [read review or visit site]

MyVintageVogue

MyVintageVogue

The history of 20th-century women’s fashion largely played out in the pages of magazines such as “Harper’s Ba… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

1960s Fashion and Textiles

1960s Fashion and Textiles

Put on your go-go boots and check out this wavy, groovy tribute to 1960s fashion and textiles, courtesy of the Vict… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Fashion Guild

Vintage Fashion Guild

The VFG is a non-profit international educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of vinta… [read review or visit site]

Fashion-Era

Fashion-Era

Bursting at the seams with content, this site contains hundreds of pages of fashion and costume history, including … [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 80's Joe Camel Advertising T Shirt Heather Grey Tri Blend The Sneakers LVtg Easy Riders Motorcycle Biker Outlaw T Shirt Not 3d Emblem Easyriders HarleyRare Vintage 80's Harley Davidson 3d Emblem The Great American Hog T Shirt Lg NrThe Flaming Lips Rare Vintage T Shirt Sonic Youth 80s Dinosaur Jr Nirvana 1988Vtg Original 1977 Led Zeppelin Us Concert Tour T-shirt-thin-distressed-large1987 Motorhead Animal Is Back Orgasmatron Vintage Rock Concert Tour T-shirt (xl)Ramones Concert T-shirt 1984 Vintage Original Too Tough To Die Shirt Vtg Harley Davidson A Way Of Life Motorcycle Biker T Shirt 3d Emblem Eagle UsaVintage 80's Disney Micky Mouse Heather Powder Blue 50 50 T Shirt Large ClassicVintage 2pac Tupac Tshirt,mens Shirt Sz L,xl,shakur,rap,hip-hop,retro,old-skoolVtg Harley Davidson Home's Where My.. Motorcycle Biker T Shirt 3d Emblem EagleRed Hot Chili Peppers Concert T-shirt Vintage Original 1980's Fight Like A BraveVtg 80s 3d Emblem Harley Davidson "the South Is Where It's At" T-shirt Xl (n13)Vtg Live To Ride T Shirt Biker Motorcycle Harley Davidson 3d Emblem Skull 1980s Vintage 80's Disney Mickey Mouse Heather Gray Classic Print T Shirt Med ThinVtg Harley Davidson A Way Of Life Motorcycle Biker T Shirt 3d Emblem Eagle Vtg Harley Davidson Eagle Logo Tee Motorcycle Biker T Shirt 3d Emblem Usa HdVtg Harley Davidson Logo Tee Motorcycle Biker T Shirt 3d Emblem Eagle Usa HdVintage Ramones T Shirt, Size Xl 1992 Mondo Bizzarro TourVtg 1986 Triumph Sport Of Kings Concert Tour T-shirt-ched-distressed-thin-mediumVtg 80s 3d Emblem Harley Davidson Motorcycle Eagle T-shirt Black Large L ?? (q26Extremely Rare 1992 Og Guns N Roses Dead Horse Dead Stock T Shirt Xl Wild OatsExtremely Rare Vintage Og 80s Sonic Youth Bad Moon Rising Noise Rock T-shirt M/lVtg 80s Blackfoot Siogo White Man's Land Sleeveless Tour T-shirt-thin-distressedMudhoney Vintage T Shirt 1993Vintage 80s 1988 Exploited World Tour Punk Rock T-shirt Sex Pistols The ClashBad Brains Vintage T Shirt Punk Black Flag Lp Descendents Rare Size LVintage 80s 1985 Harley Davidson American Legend Eagle 3d Emblem T Shirt SmallVtg Harley Davidson Logo '80s Motorcycle Biker T Shirt 3d Emblem Eagle Usa Mc UsVtg Road Reaper Motorcycle Biker Outlaw T Shirt Not 3d Emblem Talking Tops '82Vintage Nirvana Sliver Tshirt 1992 Fear Of God Beiber Kurt Cobain GrungeAuthentic Vintage Rolling Stones Concert T-shirt Ca.1981 Tattoo You World Tour The Who Concert T-shirt 1982 Farewell Tour Jersey Vintage Original + StickersVintage The Jesus And Mary Chain 90's T-shirt Shoegaze Post Punk Indie Gothic Vintage Polo Ralph Lauren Polo Bear T Shirt Mens Size Medium Gray Ivy League Boy Scout Vintage 1954 Indian Brave T-shirt Large KillerVtg 80s 3d Emblem Harley Davidson I Ride With Pride...american Made T-shirt (p28Vintage 80s Deep Purple-perfect Strangers Concert Tour T-shirt-thin-mediumVtg 1983 Sammy Hagar-red Rocker Concert Tour T-shirt-medium-thin-distressedVintage 80s Powell Peralta Skateboards Public Domain Video T-shirt Xl Medium 1991 Harley Davidson 3--d Emblem T ShirtVtg Kawasaki Motorcycle Biker T Shirt Ringer Usa Japan '80s Hanes 1980sVintage Child Toddler Ringer T-shirt Disney Mickey Mouse Minnie California Sz 2Vintage 80s Skid Row Youth Gone Wild T-shirtA Clockwork Orange Original T Shirt 80s Mosquitohead KubrickVtg Harley Davidson Not Just A Shirt Motorcycle Biker T Shirt 3d Emblem EagleVtg 80s Def Leppard High N' Dry Rock Brigade Sleeveless T-shirt-thin-distressedMens Vintage Ralph Lauren Polo 1992 Visor Hawaiian Bear T-shirt Navy LVtg 70s 80s Snoopy Peanuts Rayon Tri Blend T Shirt Artex Sz M Dads Need RestRazor Ramon T-shirt Wwf Wrestling 1993Vintage 1968 Drag Racing Nhra Mr. Gasket T-shirt XlRare Vintage 80's 3d Harley Davidson Great American Hog T-shirtVtg 80s 3d Emblem Harley Davidson "both Get Better With Age" T-shirt M ? (q27)Vtg 1977 Kansas-leftovertour Concert Tour T-shirt-paper Thin-med-leftoverture88' Vtg "harley- Davidson"- 3d Emblem Size-l T Shirt Soft And ThinVintage Harley Davidson 3d Emblem T-shirt Eagle Print Sz MediumVintage 1984 Harley-davidson-i Ride With Pride-american Made-t-shirt--largeVtg Harley Davidson The Strong Survive Motorcycle Biker T Shirt 3d Emblem EagleVtg 3d Emblem -truckers-only 'midnight Hauler Size L T -shirt Soft And ThinBoy Scout Vintage 50's Palm Tree Camp T-shirt Large Deadstock