Vintage T-shirts, by definition, weren’t always vintage. At one point, each type of shirt was brand new, and there is an origin and story to each style and design. In this article, T-Shirts.com will take you decade-by-decade to show you notable moments in t-shirt history, back when the vintage shirts weren’t so old, from the very first time a tee was worn in the United States, through the creation of innovations in technology that are still used today, as well as when popular styles and logos originated. Let’s begin!
- In World War I, American soldiers were outfitted with uniforms made of uncomfortable, heavy-duty wool. European troops, meanwhile, were issued uniforms that included undergarments made of cotton, which were breathable and lightweight. Much to the delight of the American soldiers, this style of shirt became standard for servicemen in the United States years later in World War II.
- Eventually, the basic white shirt became more than just an undergarment and grew in popularity. Vets would often wear these undershirts as casual clothes, matched with the pants from their uniform, or while doing physical labor, like construction work or training. In 1942, Life magazine even featured a T-shirt-clad soldier on their cover.
- By 1948, the T-shirt became commonplace among civilians, as well as a marketing tool for political campaigns. The first recorded shirt featuring a slogan was for New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s presidential campaign, which read “Dew it for Dewey.” Fortunately for T-shirts, the outcome of that election had no bearing on the future of the garment’s popularity.
Plain, White T-Shirt | Life Magazine Cover | "Dew-it With Dewey"
- The tee was catapulted into even greater popularity in 1951, when Marlon Brando wore one (and wore it well!) in the 1951 classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, and in 1955, with James Dean’s wardrobe choice in Rebel Without a Cause. The shirt was soon seen as a symbol of cool, youth culture and rebellion among the younger generation of the time.
- The earliest known T-shirts with specialty designs were seen in Miami. These shirts came about in the early 1950s; tourist locations in the area would decorate the tees with the name of a resort or characters promoting their location. (This, of course, brought us one step closer to “My parents went to Miami and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.”)
- The first company to own a license to put characters onto a T-shirt was Tropix Togs, a company based in Miami. Tropix Togs owned the rights to Disney characters such as Davy Crockett and Mickey Mouse and used their images to promote local establishments. This company is still in business today.
- Plastisol, a durable ink, was invented in 1959, which led to more variety of designs on T-shirts, as well as the popularity of the screen-printing process. This technique was developed in the Song Dynasty of China between 960 AD and 1279 AD. (The technology has obviously come a long, long way since then, but the general idea is the same.) In the process, either water-based or plastisol (PVC-based) inks are applied to the material through a mesh screen, which limits the area where the ink is deposited. Plastisol is still used for printing designs today.
Marlon Brando | Tropix Togs Shirt Tag | Screen Printing Process
- Besides being an advertisement for fashion companies, T-shirts are often a soap box for political statements, a trend that began in the 60s, but still continues today. The tee became a popular way to showcase a wearer’s political opinions, as well as their love of psychedelic symbols and pop art. One example of a design from the 60s that has endured is the image of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, which has been imitated and parodied countless times.
- The 1960s also gave us two other, prominent T-shirt styles: the ringer and the tie-dye. Ringer shirts were often worn by young people and famous rock and roll artists. Tie-dye styles kick-started the DIY trend in tees, and were very popular among the hippie crowd of the 60s. Many famous musicians wore tie-dye shirts at music festivals and other concerts, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, and The Grateful Dead.
- Another popular licensing company that produced T-shirts was Monster Company. Started by four friends – the most notable being Stanley Mouse, a well-known pop artist of the 1960s – the endeavor was created specifically to be able to put "fine art" onto T-shirts. Their most popular sellers were shirts that showed off art from the band The Grateful Dead, as well as shirts that had references to drug culture. Unlike Tropix Togs, Monster Company is no longer in business.
Che Guevara | The Grateful Dead | Joe Cocker at Woodstock
- Many companies in the1970s started selling T-shirts with their logo, such as Coca Cola, Mr. Bubble, and Dodge cars (plus many, many more). Today, almost any brand is fair game: from household goods to luxury vehicles to electronics.
- Multiple notable designs came about in T-shirts during the 1970s. Most popular are of the band The Rolling Stones with their legendary "tongue and mouth" logo, the yellow "happy face" art, and Milton Glaser's all too familiar "I ♥ NY". Punk designer Vivienne Westwood created the famous “God Save the Queen” tee in 1975, which helped to kick-start the popularity of independent, counterculture designers, as well as influenced the Sex Pistols.
Rolling Stones Logo | Emma Watson in a I ♥ NY T-Shirt | God Save the Queen
- In the 1980s, shirts held strong as a form of expression for people both young and old. However, the increase in corporate funding also influenced many popular shirts of the time. Shirts like "Frankie Say Relax," written in large, black letters, or “Choose Life” were used to promote the bands Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Wham! respectively.
- Bob Geldof’s “Feed the World” was one of the earliest, and most popular, examples of a T-shirt used to raise money for charity. The shirt was sold in conjunction with the 1984 supergroup Band Aid’s single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
George Michael of Wham! | Frankie Say Relax | Boy George with Bob Geldof
1990s - Now:
- Here is where we get into a fuzzy area. When does a shirt become vintage? 10 years? 20 years? Just as soon as the general public forgets about a specific trend? Technicalities aside, I’m excited for the day we see such t-shirts as “Make 7 Up Yours,” “Free Weezy,” and “Team Edward” in vintage boutiques across the country.
Resources:The Definitive History of the T-Shirt, A Brief and Incomplete Timeline of T-Shirt History, The History of the T-Shirt, History of the T-Shirt
This article was written by guest author, Maribeth Curley who, like Frankie himself, says relax!