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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Recent News: T-Shirts

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Police Blotter: Stealing T-shirts in Hanover; party in Randolph
Daily Record, July 28th

•At 1:19 p.m. on July 20, officers responded to Walmart and took custody of Keaton Smith, 25, of Morristown, for shoplifting almost $40 worth of T-shirts. Prior to being transported to police headquarters Smith was searched and found to be in...Read more

How Twitch Creators Are Monetizing with T-shirts from Teespring
VideoInk, July 28th

In August 2014, Twitch partnered with Teespring, an e-commerce platform that enables individuals to design and sell custom t-shirts with no start-up costs. In the eleven months since, Twitchcasters have launched over 1,000 Teespring campaigns that have ...Read more

Local Artist Sells T-Shirts: 'Shoot Your Local Heroin Dealer'
CBS Local, July 28th

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – St. Louis hip-hop artist Brian “B Skan aka Headshot Louie” Stringer says his lyrics are honest and will probably shock listeners. He raps about the shooting death of his brother, his dislike of the police, and he is featured on a...Read more

T-shirts honor fallen Officer David Nelson, raise money for charity
Kern Golden Empire, July 27th

BAKERSFIELD, CA- The family of Officer David Nelson has created some custom t-shirts to honor his memory. The Lights on for David Nelson Facebook page posted images of country music singer Brantley Gilbert who got in on the act over the weekend at a ...Read more

Madewell's Ridiculously Cute New Collab Just Hit Stores
POPSUGAR, July 27th

A great wardrobe is only as good as its lazy-day t-shirts. So while we spend time a lot of our time cultivating a cool wardrobe for the workweek and special occasions, why shouldn't our easy pieces make us feel just as good? Madewell's clearly on our...Read more

Lafayette Strong T-shirts to benefit victims
KLFY, July 27th

Camryn Britt, daughter of Grafx Plus owner Eric Britt, holds one of the T-shirts for sale. All proceeds will go to the victims of Thursday's shooting and their families. (Photo courtesy: Eric Britt). Related Coverage. Attorney General warns about scam...Read more

No T-shirts, no shorts, no mandals? Hewlett-Packard bans sloppy summer fashion ...
GeekWire, July 27th

Photo via Flickr/CreativeCommons/Don DeBold/HP logo. Summer brings out perhaps the worst fashion mistakes when it comes to dressing for work, and Hewlett-Packard has apparently just put the smackdown on T-shirts and shorts at the office. The rumored ...Read more

Corktown startup to hire former inmates to make classic American T-shirts
Crain's Detroit Business, July 27th

The T-shirts themselves, available in either white or indigo, are made from organic supima cotton, which has the longest fibers of any cotton plant, according to Birky. The cotton is harvested in the southwest United States, spun in Switzerland and...Read more