A Modern History of T-Shirt Trends

by |April 19, 2011
Categories: Blog

When Neatorama posted a Mental Floss history of the t-shirt last month, we were inspired to do some research of our own. What follows is a rough timeline of modern t-shirt trends and the pop culture icons that inspired them.

Early 1990s

Teen Fashion

It was the Kellys of television that set fashion trends for teen girls in the 1990s: Kelly Kapowski of Saved by the Bell, Kelly Taylor of 90210, and Kelly Bundy of Married with Children. Even Tiffani of California Dreams was played by a real-life Kelly. They each represented a slight variation of the archetypal high school dreamgirl: the girl next door (Kapowski), the laid-back surfer (Tiffani), the vixen (Taylor), and the dumb blonde (Bundy). Despite their differences, they all seemed to agree on the necessity floral prints and midriffs.

T-Shirt styles from Saved by the Bell

Meanwhile, male TV high school heartthrobs like Zack Morris opted for oversized items. This too-big effect was maximized by horizontal stripes and large prints. (Thrifty moms loved this trend, as it became nearly impossible for their sons to ever outgrow the large shirts.)

Hip Hop FashionHip Hop

The ladies and gentlemen of the hip hop scene put a funkier twist on teen trends. TLC and Salt-n-Pepa paired neon crop tops with baggy pants or overalls. Male rappers went for oversized like the teen guys did, but they chose brighter colors (a la The Fresh Prince) or bulky leather jackets (like Naughty by Nature). These rappers completed their outfits by topping them off with heavy gold chains.

Singles MovieGrunge

In the early 1990s, Seattle-based grunge rockers like Eddie Vedder inspired Seattle-based fake grunge rockers like Matt Dillon (see Singles) who inspired twenty-somethings everywhere to abandon their showers and washing machines. Old, unbuttoned flannel shirts worn over old, unwashed t-shirts were suddenly stylish, especially on guys who played guitar with their head down, dreamy eyes barely peeking through their long, greasy hair. The trend made its way into women's fashion as well, especially in the shoe department. Dr. Martens combat boots became the essential companion to even the prettiest, most girly of dresses.


Then there were country stars like Billy Ray Cyrus. Yes, before he was "Miley's dad," he was Billy Ray – the Billy Ray who cut the sleeves off of his t-shirt and introduced the world to the achy breaky mullet. (This is where we debated including his music video. In the end, we decided against it to save you from getting the 1992 country music hit stuck in your head. You're welcome.)

Mid 1990s

CluelessThe Genius that was Clueless

Alicia Silverstone made us drool over her extravagant closet and hot older step-brother in Clueless. She also inspired girls everywhere to trade in their grungy boots for plaid skirts, platform heels, and cap sleeve baby doll tshirts. The trend stuck as the ladies of TGIF and Must See TV carried it through to the end of the 90s.

Skater Punk Fashion from CluelessClueless also serves as a perfect example of the skater punk
wardrobe, though any skater punk would cringe upon hearing that. Baggy pants that were completely impractical for skating were paired with t-shirts and plaids. A skater punk could easily be identified by his hacky sacks and beanie.

Torn Natalie ImbrugliaAlternative Fashion

The ladies of the Lilith Fair took a different approach to feminine fashion. They passed on pink fitted tees and opted for earth tones instead. Their more natural look complemented their raw vocals, but was still pretty enough to propel them to the top of the music charts.

Late 1990s

Khaki Swing

We can thank the Gap, Inc. for bringing back neutrals with those catchy Khaki Swing and Mellow Yellow commercials and for introducing us to Old Navy performance fleece. Now being a fashionista meant being warm and comfortable in cool colors.

Teen Stars

The late 1990s was the time for former MMC stars like Justin, Britney, JC, and Christina to make names for themselves in boy bands and as pop stars. The guys wore solid colors and short sleeves to showcase their ripped arms, while the ladies bared their midriffs in crop tops and their arms in spaghetti straps. (Not surprisingly, a number of workout videos promising bodies just like the stars' emerged at this time.)

Teen Idols

The 2000s

Abercrombie T ShirtGraphic Tees

About the time that LFO's "Summer Girls" was topping the TRL charts, Abercrombie and the like were introducing souvenir-inspired graphic tees. Now it no longer mattered if you weren't a world-class sailing champion, you could buy a t-shirt from a nonexistent yacht club that said you were. Never actually been to a roadside tourist trap in Montana? No problem! There was a shirt for that, too. Some stores eventually went too far and got sued for being disrespectful of other cultures, but the graphic tee trend persists. (Though it now involves more "clever" sayings and sexual innuendos.)

Emo StyleEmo Style

Before they were hipsters, they were emo kids. How could you recognize emo kids in the early 2000s? They were the ones with dyed black hair that were shopping at Hot Topic while talking about MySpace and listening to Dashboard Confessional. They usually look sad, too.

Life is Good

The phenomenon that is Life is Good took off in the early 2000s. The three-word slogan and its stick figure companion were sold on t-shirts across the country to the "granola" Birkenstock crowd before organic fabrics became so widely available.

Life is Good

Hillary DuffStretchy Stuff

After years of spending too much time squeezing into uncomfortable jeans, women discovered the genius of yoga wear. Now, not only is it acceptable to wear your workout gear in public, it's highly recommended.

Fall Out BoyRock Trends

Converse, The Strokes, vintage t-shirts, lip rings, and fitted hoodies became the new counterculture trend for young men in the mid-2000s who dreamed of becoming rock stars. As time passed and these young men grew up, the t-shirts, jeans, and hoodies became more and more fitted.

Ed HardyEd Hardy

It's a bad sign when your brand is synonymous with reality TV stars. It's a worse sign when those reality TV stars are Jon Gosselin and the cast of Jersey Shore. Yet those shirts with metallic dragons, washed out roses, large eagles, hidden hearts, and ribbons of colors topped off with a big Ed Hardy logo sell like hotcakes. Here's some advice if you're an Ed Hardy fan: ditch the shirt. (and the Von Dutch trucker hat that's hiding in the back of your closet.) You're better off for doing so, even if you did spend $152 on a single tee. Trust us.

Star Wars T-ShirtNostalgia

As the world so rapidly changes, the single most popular, most persistent trend is nostalgia. From Atari and Mario, to The Breakfast Club and Star Wars, vintage t-shirts (even if they were produced after the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future) remind us of everything we loved about our youth.

And that is why we conclude with a flashback:


While researching this article, we asked a number of people for their opinions, ideas, and memories. Every one of them brought up Hypercolor t-shirts. It makes sense— even in the world of Web 2.0, iPhones, and Xbox Kinect, no item of clothing has ever been as interactive as a Hypercolor t-shirt was. Its heat-sensitive fabric allowed for endless fun with creatively-placed handprints and made them popular for both kids and adults.

So, for your viewing pleasure, we leave you with this commercial from 1992. Enjoy:


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& The entire T-Shirts.com staff