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”)

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]

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]

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 1984 Kenny Rogers Concert Tour T-shirt Sleeveless Confederate LargeVintage 1991 My Bloody Valentine Loveless Shoegaze Rock Tour Concert T-shirtVintage 1981 Bauhaus Mask 50/50 Gothic Rock Punk Tour Concert Promo T-shirtVintage 80'1987 3d Emblem Party Animals Hog Hawg Paper Thin T-shirt L Rare Rare Original 1987 Iron Mainden Somwhere In Time Tour Tshirt Paper ThinVtg Harley Davidson Hog 3d Emblem T-shirt Xl Men 80s 1986 Riding Motorcycle UsaVintage 80s Adidas Rainbow Trefoil Trikot Bob Weiland Walk For Hunger T-shirt SVintage 1990 Harley Davidson The South Is Where It's At 3d Emblem T-shirt Medium Vintage 3 D Emblem T Shirt Harley Hawg - Green Eyed Monster Hawg New Old StockNew Prince New Power Soul Festival Concert Tour Xl T-shirtVtg 80s 1982 Iron Maiden Killer World Tour Concert Thin T-shirt Jersey RaglanVintage 1987 Slayer T-shirt Reign In Blood Tour Concert Tee Def Jam 1980sVintage 1980 Dead Kennedys Punk Rock Black Flag Concert T-shirt Ronald ReaganNew Prince Emancipation Love Sex Liberty 90s Concert Tour Xl T-shirtVintage Ramones Rocket To Russia 1970's Shirt Vintage 80's Harley Davidson 3d Emblem Xl Black Eagle Motorcycle Mens T ShirtVintage Lot 30 Rock Metal Concert T-shirt Shirt Iron Maiden Metallica MegadethVtg 1990 Bnwot 3d Emblem Harley Davidson New Orleans T-shirt M D/s Eagle OgVtg 90s 3d Emblem Harley Davidson One Hot Piece Of American Steel T-shirt Xl H61Vtg 80s 3d Emblem Harley Davidson Sink Your Claws... Eagle T-shirt Large L (g15Vtg 80s 1983 Us Festival Tour Concert Jersey 50/50 Thin T-shirt Clash Bowie CrueVintage 60s Philmont Scout Ranch T Shirt Boy Scouts Of America Buffalo Sz MediumVtg 80s 1983 Journey Bryan Adams Paper Thin Tour Concert Raglan Jersey T-shirt SVtg 80s Black Sabbath Heavy Metal Band T-shirtVintage 80s Grateful Dead T Shirt Airbrushed Jerry Garcia Dead Head Tour Original Vtg 90s 1990 Twin Peaks Tv Show Promo David Lynch Mark Frost T-shirt LVtg 90s 3d Emblem Harley Davidson Live The Legend T-shirt Black X-large Xl (h64Vtg Harley Davidson T-shirtConfederate Vintage Sleevelees T-shirt By Zip It London Made In EnglandVintage 80s Paper Thin 50/50 Punk Rock Hardcore Minor Threat T-shirt LRare Blue Oyster Cult / Foghat Concert T-shirt Shirt 1981 Jersey Size SmallRamones Vintage Concert T-shirt From 1989 - Brain DrainRamones 1988 Vintage Concert T-shirt We're A Happy Family, Screen Stars TagVintage 80s Spuds Mackenzie Bud Light Hang Twenty Surf Party Animal T-shirt LRare Vintage Usn Motorcycle Biker Gang Club Navy Usa T-shirt Sweatshirt M HarleyVtg T Shirt Lot Of 33 Mixed Tees Biker Concert Rock Pop Country MetalVintage 1997 No Doubt Tshirt Gwen Stefani Ska Rock Punk Band 90s RetroVintage -1989 Rolling Stones Steel Wheels Canadian Concert Tour T Shirt L Craig Kelly's Vintage Burton 1987 Training Camp T-shirt. Secret Mission In Aust.Vintage 80s New Orleans Steamboat Pink Distressed Paper Thin Soft T-shirt XlGrateful Dead T Shirt Original Vintage Chinese New Year--rooster 1993 Never WornVintage Original 1989 Rolling Stones Steel Wheels Concert Tour T-shirtGrace Jones 1989 Vintage Bulletproof Heart T-shirt Grace In Your Face Very Rare!Rare Deadstock Vintage 1997 Spawn Ilm Effects Crew Tshirt Movie Comicbook 90sGrateful Dead T-shirt Original Vintage Summer Tour '94 Ship Of Fools Never WornVintage Iron Maiden Concert T-shirt, 1988 Seventh Son Tour, ClairvoyantVintage Original Rock Concert Tour T Shirt The Who 1982 American Tour Made U.s.Rare Vintage 1980's 1984 Scorpions Love At First Sting Us Tour Concert T ShirtRare Vintage 1980's Kansas World Tour Concert Tshirt 80's ShirtRare Vintage 1980's Reo Speedwagon Tour De Force Concert TshirtVintage The Pogues Concert Tour T-shirt Irish Folk Punk St Patricks Day Usa 80sRare Vintage 1991 The Replacements Welcome Funeral Directors Tour T-shirtVintage 90s Metallica Summer Sh*t Tour T-shirt Size Large Concert Rock Metal UsaVintage 1982 Olivia Newton John Lets Get Physical North American Tour TshirtVintage 90s Marlboro Cigarettes Wild West Collection T-shirt M/l Cowboy TobaccoRare Vintage 1981 Krokus Gold Brick World Tour Concert T Shirt - MediumVtg True Vintage Bruce Springsteen T Shirt Born In The Usa Wmn's SmallVintage 80s Hanes 50/50 Gray Blank Deadstock Made In Usa Big T-shirt XxlVintage 1987 Bam Bam Wrestling Large L Black T-shirt Wcw Wwf Wwe Titan SportsVtg T Shirt Lot Of 33 Mixed Tees Concert Biker Rock Pop Country Metal