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    

Harley Davidson Live To Ride Last Vintage 70’s 80’s 50/50 Motorcycle T ShirtVintage 80s Harley Davidson No 1 Soft Thin Rayon Raglan T Shirt Small Tri BlendRare 70s Levis Denim Mine Print Authentic Levis Grail T Shirt Medim Vtg 1990s Tupac Photo Print Concert Tour T Shirt Its A Set Up So Keep Your Head Vtg 1980s Dio Concert Tour T Shirt 1987 1988 Tour America Size Large 80s MetalRare Vintage Bob Dylan 1978 U.s. Tour T-shirt (l) 70s RockHarley Davidson Vintage 80’s Soft Thin 50/50 Motorcycle T Shirt Stedman Ex Raymond Pettibon - Vintage T-shirt L.a. Punk Scene 80's - Sst Records **rare!**True Vintage 1984-85 Iron Maiden World Slavery Tour Graphic Long Sleeve T-shirt Dokken Beast From The East Vintage 50/50 T-shirt MPink Floyd A Momentary Lapse Of Reason Vintage 1987 Concert Tour T Shirt Vtg Megadeth Concert Tour T Shirt Contaminated Tour Tee Heavy Metal Size XlAnthrax Original Vtg 1987 T-shirt Metal Mosh It Up Tour Concert(not Patch Pin)Pink Floyd Tour Shirt 1987 Vintage Tshirt 1980s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason 80sVintage Harley Davidson 3d Emblem T Shirt Biker RockerClockwork Orange Vintage 80’s 90’s Movie T Shirt Vtg 1990s Coolio Hip Hop Rap Concert Tour T Shirt Gangstas Paradise Too HotVintage 1983 Rare New Unsold Unworn Quiet Riot Metal Health T-shirt Xl MintVintage 88' Truckers Only 3d Emblem 50/50 T-shirt Sz MVtg The Cure Concert Tour T Shirt The Prayer Tour Tee Size M Chicago TexasVintage Twin Peaks T Shirt 1992 Vintage David LynchVintage 3d Emblem T Shirt Truckers Only "leader Of The Pack" Size MVtg 1985 Harley Davidson Whiskey T Shirt Small Motorcycle American Made Usa 80s1981 Vintage Harley Davidson T-shirt Made By For Bikers Only, Sportswear BodyVintage Sneakers 3d Emblem Longnecks & My Harley Davidson T Shirt Size: MVintage 3d Emblem T Shirt Truckers Only " The Strong Survive" Size LVintage Levis Strauss Tall Man Big E Red Tab T-shirt Made In Usa Size Xl Denim3d Emblem Truckers Only King Of The Road Vintage 1989 80s Harley Relate T Shirt Vintage Polo Ralph Lauren Teddy Bear T-shirt Men's Large Usa Made Sweater Coat Vintage 80s Ushra Bigfoot Monster Truck Jam T-shirt Large Cartoon Car Race ThinRare Vintage Mr T Experience Pop Punk Mtx Lookout Records Green Day T-shirt OopRare Vintage David Bowie 1983 Tour T-shirt (l) 80s RockVtg 90s Waiting To Exhale Movie Whitney Houston T-shirt Size Xxl Vtg 1984 Nike 1 California Plates Blue Tag T-shirtMetallica Metal Up Your Ass T-shirt 1987Nofx 1994 Tour Vintage Tee T Shirt 1990's Rock Original Vintage Ww2 Us Army Air Force Gray Cotton Pt Sweatshirt And T-shirtVtg 90s Sepultura Third World Posse Tour Dates Metal T-shirtVintage 1990 Harley Davidson 3d Emblem Motorcycle Biker T-shirt Sz. L EagleVtg 80s Rare Nike The Sporting Foot Runners Club T-shirtWendy O. Williams Plasmatics Vintage 80’s Original Concert Tour T Shirt Punk Neil Young Life Vintage 1987 80’s Concert Tour T Shirt Rare Ralph Lauren Polo Bear T Shirt Vintage Size LargeVtg 90s Depeche Mode Alternative Rock Bant Tour T-shirtPublic Enemy T-shirt Rap Hip-hop XlVtg 1989 Poison Concert Tour T Shirt Open Up And Say Ahh Tee 1980s Size SVintage 70's 80's Gay Bar/club T Shirt Tom Of Finland Leather Brotherhood XlVtg 1994 Grateful Dead Concert Tour T Shirt Summer Tour Tee Traffic 1990s Skull 1982 Who Concert Tshirt NewLollapalooza 1991 Vintage T-shirt Size Xl- Janes Addiction, Nine Inch NailsLollapalooza 1992 Vintage T-shirt Size Xl- Soundgarden, Ministry, Pearl JamVintage 1984 New Unsold Unworn Duran Duran T-shirt Xl Hat Scarf Book Tapestries*1990 Winger* Original Rock Concert Tour T-shirt (med) 80's 90's Hair Metal! Vintage Orgy T-shirt White Ladies Small Or Xs Like A Vivienne Westwood.70sJ Mascis & The Fog Free So Free Dinosaur Jr, Vintage Concert Tour T Shirt Punk Fleetwood Mac 1977 Real Vintage Rock T Shirt TeeBudweiser Vintage 1986 Artex Medium T Shirt Made In Usa King Of Beers Thin RareTeeze Teeze Me Please Vintage 80s Pa. Glam Metal Band 50/50 Screen Stars T ShirtVtg 90s Grateful Dead Ship Of Fools Rock Band Tye Dye T-shirtVintage 1982/83 Rare New Unsold Unworn The J Geils Band Showtime T-shirt Medium