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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Fireman faces ax over anti-affirmative-action T-shirtsNew York Post, January 26th
A judge has recommended the FDNY sack Brooklyn firefighter Thomas Buttaro for wearing anti-affirmative-action T-shirts to work, creating what she called a hostile work environment. “The FDNY is a para-military organization and may restrict a uniformed ...Read more
The lunacy of the feminist war on T-shirtsNew York Post, January 26th
“People say sexism isn't continuing right now, but if we can't get the same T-shirts as men, how can we be equal?” That important question comes from Carmen DeBenedictis, a Cambridge, Mass., high-school student on the front lines of the latest feminist ...Read more
James Bonneau memorial T-shirts to raise money for child advocacy fund, Police ...MLive.com, January 26th
JACKSON, MI – A fundraiser selling T-shirts commemorating the fifth anniversary of Jackson Police Officer James Bonneau's death will be sold online through Thursday, Jan. 30. Proceeds from the fundraiser will be split between the Officer James D...Read more
Team Justice T-shirts sell fast: 5 years after Morgan Harrington's remains are ...WDBJ7, January 26th
Monday at 10:15 am, the exact time parents Dan and Gil Harrington received the call from police five years ago that their daughter's remains were found, Team Justice t-shirts went on sale online. By late afternoon Monday 450 t-shirts had been sold and...Read more
No Fear of the Big Dogs: An Ode to the Forgotten Graphic T-Shirts of the '90sComplex, January 26th
It's hard living in an era when you know a golden age has just passed. This is surely what the literary world felt just after the time of Shakespeare. Could you imagine coming into the art world just after the death of Picasso or hitting the music...Read more
Va. nonprofit sells T-shirts to promote personal safetyBluefield Daily Telegraph, January 26th
Media outlets report that the group will begin selling its “Team Justice” T-shirts on Monday, the fifth anniversary of the discovery of Harrington's body in a field in Albemarle County. The 20-year-old Harrington disappeared while attending a concert...Read more
Murder in Mobile: Memorial T-shirts and other products offer comfort to some ...AL.com, January 25th
On this December day in Midtown's Roger Williams public housing complex, Hopkins' mother, siblings and cousins all wear T-shirts with the aspiring young rapper's picture on them, along with phrases that ranged from "R.I.P. My Son" to "Bill Gang," which...Read more
T-shirts revisit speech debatePort Huron Times Herald, January 24th
Controversies have emerged across the country when members of different basketball teams have worn "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts — a reference to Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African-American man who uttered the phrase while being placed in a neck hold by ...Read more