The history of the graphic t-shirt is as young as its youthful spirit suggests. Created barely 100 years ago, its evolution from underwear to outerwear encompasses the spirit of American fashion.
1939’s The Wizard of Oz may mark the graphic t-shirt’s first on-screen appearance. The workers tasked with re-stuffing the scarecrow wear green t-shirts emblazoned with the word “Oz”.
A few years later, the first picture of a graphic tee appeared on the cover of the popular Life magazine.
While it became commonplace to see WWII veterans wearing their Army-issued t-shirts, it wasn’t until the the release of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951 that the t-shirt really took off. Marlon Brando, and the form-fitting t-shirt he wore, rocketed to stardom.
And James Dean in “Rebel without a cause”:
By the end of that year, teens had made the t-shirt into a $180 million dollar business. Tropix Togs grabbed the exclusive rights from The Walt Disney Company to print Mickey Mouse and his pals on t-shirts, ushering in the era of the printed t-shirt.
But it was music that focused attention on the graphic t-shirt as a symbol of cool. The Beatles had jump started the rock and roll era and, as the 60s rolled into the 70s, the bands that followed them issued t-shirts to promote themselves.
Iconic images — the Rolling Stone’s lips logo, Pink Floyd’s prism, Led Zeppelin’s blimp — were born and young fans were happy to literally be walking advertisements for their favorite musicians.
The 80s marked the era of emboldened logos. Guess, Nike and Adidas cashed in on the brand-mania with t-shirts sporting their logos.
With the rise of MTV, music suddenly had a strong visual presence and fans wanted a piece of their favorite pop artists.
At the same time, the surf and skate culture of Southern California was rising. Board-centric labels like Stussy, Billabong, Quiksilver and Maui & Sons rose to prominence, with a business driven by t-shirts, making the active west coast lifestyle accessible to everyone.
As the new millennium began to unfold, vintage tees from the 60s and 70s, discovered in flea markets or found in the attics and closets of parents and grandparents, became collectibles. The introduction of techniques such as stone-washing, crackle, and burnout, recreated the worn-in look and feel of these coveted pieces onto new garments. The modern generation with the inside track on the future established their uniform with the graphic t-shirt as its centerpiece.
Fresh silhouettes, innovative fabrics, and advancements in screen printing technology continue to spur brands and artists. The graphic tee maintains its presence as the linchpin of visual statements in the modern wardrobe.