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The History of Graphic Tees

Fashion without a t-shirt is like coffee without a cup. From the 1950s onwards, the graphic tee rapidly emerged as a building block for individualism, free speech, and style. Here’s how the tee with graphics went from army gear to everyone’s must-have wardrobe staple.

In the interim between WWI and WWII, t-shirts began to appear in the U.S. Army uniforms thanks to jersey fabric that was tough, cool and ideal for training on hot days. By the 1950s, they were usually accompanied by blue jeans, black shades and a pack of smokes rolled neatly into a sleeve — thanks in no small part to original cool kids, James Dean and Marlon Brando.

By the 60s, screen print graphics were on the rise and completely common – boys t-shirts regularly sported stylized images of sports, race cars, spaceships and action heroes. Around the end of the decade, they emerged into a much more fashionable territory.

Through the 70’s the graphic tee was on the rise, from band tee logos of the Rolling Stones, Kiss, AC/DC and others. Nobody did snarky tee’s like Frank Zappa and every influential band from The Ramones to Blondie and the Grateful Dead had their own.

By this time, too, the graphic tee had become serious competition among political swag. Every presidential race from Johnson-Goldwater, Nixon-McGovern, Carter-Ford and then especially Reagan’s two campaigns saw an onset of graphic tee’s, mostly in red and blue that became badges of honor.

By the 80’s, it was all about the material world and conspicuous consumption. Giant graphic logos suddenly appeared from all corners and brand like Guess?, Nike, Fila, Adidas, Calvin Klein and dozens of others cashed in on blown up identity.

By this time, it was a fully mainstream unisex garment that had become the ultimate carrier for most important postmodern signifiers: protest, politics, place (geographic and economic), preference.

The trends of the 80s continued into the cynical 90s, but took on a harder edge. Logos stayed huge but were toned down, graphics were slicker, political statements were graver and price gaps were larger. Bands like Nirvana blew up other bands by way of T-shirts (Daniel Johnston became a cult figure likely in no small part thanks to Kurt Cobain’s famous t-shirt). Nirvana’s own band tees, of course, become among the most iconic ever after Cobain’s death.

After grunge died down by the late 90s, the t-shirt experienced a decade-long lull. Inexpensive printing made for heavily commercialized statement t-shirts, designer logos had become cheapened by counterfeit knockoffs and everything was peddled by the zillions at Wal-Mart and Hot Topic. By the turn of the millennium, the graphic t-shirt had become a lazy shortcut for personal style and no matter its graphic content — Budweiser, Beavis and Butthead — nothing had much meaning.

Then, in 2004 the cult film, Napoleon Dynamite, entered the scene and with one majorly powerful meme brought the modern graphic tee back-to-its snarky, clever 1970s roots.

Today big brands put their best foot forward when it comes to graphic tee’s, from Céline to Chanel and Acne – they continue to churn out iconic tees every fashion season. For the first time in decades, cuts and silhouettes are morphing to new places, better fabrics, clever graphics and careful craftsmanship which are transforming them into real aspirational items.

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