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Originally, T-shirts were a part of men's underwear and appeared in their usual form at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. They were mostly worn by workers and the military - in 1913, the US Navy officially made the T-shirt part of its uniform for the first time. They began to be used as outerwear after the Second World War. Military veterans did it out of habit, workers – out of convenience, while those attributing themselves to “Kustom Kulture” that was new at the time (a general term that includes bikers, hot rod builders, and a large accompanying cultural layer) didit out of fashion and protest. The fashion for T-shirts came to the masses in the 50s, after the hugely popular films A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando and Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean. Despite the emerging popularity, for some time this choice of clothing was still defiant and rebellious.
As the role of T-shirts in everyday use changed and demand grew, local manufacturers appeared in the United States, whose products became the basis (so-called "blanks") for printing graphics. The first prints began to appear on T-shirts in the late 30s and early 40s. For example, the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" and the cover of "LIFE" magazine in 1942 are among the first of their appearances in the mainstream media. The latter depicts a soldier wearing an "Air Corps Gunnery School" T-shirt - during WWII, many US military units and training locations created T-shirts with their "logos" and names. The green OZ-printed Emerald City workers' jerseys are perhaps the first example of merch.
In the early days of T-shirt graphics, several technologies were available. At first, the so-called "Iron-on" printing was dominant - a method of transferring a pattern from a special paper to a product under the influence of high temperature. Screen printing (silk-screen printing) was less popular due to the use of water-based paints in it, which were easily washed out after washing and took a long time to dry. Also, some artists applied drawings using airbrushes, but this technology had no prospects in mass production. That all changed with the introduction of plastisol inks in 1959 and the creation of a multicolor silk screen printing machine by inventor Michael Vasilantone in 1960, which has since become the industry standard.
Thus, by the end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s, several key factors came together in the United States - the popularity of T-shirts and many manufacturers that appeared in the result, the development of printing technologies, their availability and mass character, as well as the pop-cultural boom and the demand of youth for self-expression and identification. The latter gave the beginning to the history of musical merch. It all started with bobby-soxers and rockabilly in the 40s, when teenagers applied images of idols like Frank Sinatra on their T-shirts by themselves. Many entrepreneurs have noticed the undersatisfied demand for official artist products and the great potential in this area. One of them was Henry Saperstein, owner of the merchandising company Special Products, Inc., who in 1956 signed an agreement with Elvis Presley's manager Tom Parker to provide exclusive rights to use the artist's image in various products, including T-shirts. So, with rock and roll and Elvis, the history of licensed musical merch began. In six months, Saperstein's company sold a staggering $22 million worth of rock star products. Soon other popular artists like The Beatles began to sign similar contracts.
Classic rock was replaced by psychedelic rock along with hippie culture. This period (late 60s - early 70s) in terms of clothing is associated with the "tie-dye" dyeing technique. The main figure of this time in the music industry and in fields like promotion and merchandising, is Bill Graham. His concert venues "Fillmore" and "Winterland" became the center of the musical counterculture, and many of the little-known local bands he found became legends of the genre. One such band was the Grateful Dead. Their visual style, as well as that of similar bands, is closely associated with such artists as Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin, Elton Kelly and Wes Wilson. Many of their works, whether they are concert posters, album covers or mascots, have served as the basis for some of the most recognizable and unique music T-shirts. "Stealie", "Skull and Roses" and "The Dancing Bears" painted over the multicolored tie-dye are still coveted collectibles to this day.
In 1974, Bill Graham, along with brothers Dell and Dave Furano, who worked as merchants at his sites, created the first licensing and production of concert T-shirts "Winterland Productions". Their clients will later include The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith and many other famous bands. The idea of making money on the fans by selling their image on T-shirts at that time was perceived with hostility by most artists, so Graham and the Furano brothers had to do a great job. Their efforts have paved the way for similar companies, including "Giant", "Brockum" and "PolyGram". In the mid-70s, stadiums became the main concert venues, which meant an increase in the volume of merchandise produced. The number of T-shirts was also influenced by the appearance at this time of some of the most recognizable music logos - "Tongue and lips" from The Rolling Stones in 1971, "Kiss" in 1973 and "AC / DC" in 1977.
The next milestone was the evolution of psychedelic rock into metal. In merch, this was reflected as a shift from colorful tie-dye designs to black T-shirts. The monochrome base was offset by a variety of graphics. Visual styles were also formed along with subgenres. The more extreme the music became, the more extreme and interesting the prints were. The eternal question whether you need to be a fan of the band to wear its merch dates back to that time. Of course, a lot of album covers and other materials are works of art by themselves, regardless of the context of the band they were made for. But in the case of metal, care must be taken. Behind the aesthetically attractive and provocative prints, there is often some kind of message, ignorance of which can pose a very real danger. Metal and punk merch are generally characterized by various kinds of visual provocations: satanic and anti-religious motives, various kinds of nudity and dismemberment. Just one famous example is enough to illustrate the trend - the T-shirts of the "Cradle of Filth" band with the words "Jesus is a cunt" on the back and the image of a masturbating nun on the chest.
With the emergence and rise of hip-hop in the 90s, its own merchandise industry didn’t take long to appear. Its distinctive feature is the rarity of licensed copies and a huge number of "bootlegs". The difference between a bootleg and a fake is that the first does not have the goal of copying an existing thing in order to mislead the buyer. This is an independent fan work using, in the case of musical merch, the symbolism and image of the artist. The first bootlegs were the 50s fan t-shirts and since then this kind of merchandise subculture has existed alongside official merchandise. At stadium concerts, bootleg shops could easily be found in parking lots - there is even a special term "parking lot tees" for such T-shirts. In the case of hip-hop, the reluctance of artists to do merch and the desire of other people to make money from it coincided. As a result, some Biggie T-shirts at the peak of his popularity were sold literally on every corner.
Bootlegs can be just as expensive and meaningful as official merchandise. This raises the question of pricing in the vintage T-shirt market. Here, in addition to obvious factors such as rarity and popularity, there is a specific and interesting one - distress. Spots of paint, bleach, sweat or even blood, holes from ash and a washed-out cracked print - in the right combination, these factors not only do not reduce, but increase the value of the thing. Relatively speaking, a work or home T-shirt of someone's father, once in the hands of a right person, can be sold for good money. Where do vintage T-shirts come from nowadays? This one is easier to think of as a system of levels. At the zero level - people, and more specifically the owners, often not young, who bought a T-shirt in the distant, distant years. On the first - thrift stores, second-hand and thrift shops like "Goodwill" or "Salvation Army", various kinds of auctions, as well as warehouses and factories for processing or sorting clothes. On the second - garage sales and flea markets, the most popular of which is Los Angeles "Rose Bowl". Here you can find both resellers and people selling personal items. And finally, at the third level, there are online stores and platforms or specialized vintage stores. It sells all the most interesting, selected by resellers from the lower levels. In order to identify a genuine vintage T-shirt from a new one, you need to have a lot of experience, knowledge and experience, which is beyond the reach of most people. Therefore, the easiest way to buy a cool original thing with a history is for a high price in a trusted store. The main platform with sellers at the moment, as in the field of archival clothing or sneakers, is Instagram. There are also websites and physical stores of various types, the most popular of which is "Vintage by Round Two" - a project by Sean Wotherspoon, who started out as a resale of old things, and his two colleagues, Chris Russo and Luke Fracher.
The very culture around vintage T-shirts dates back to the 2000s. For quite a long time this community was pretty closed and consisted mainly of collectors. Old T-shirts are attractive primarily due to a sense of nostalgia, belonging and uniqueness. People want to own something that they saw in childhood with their parents or wore themselves in their youth, and perhaps on the contrary - they could not afford it. The same way, they want to belong to a certain large group, and if possible - to stand out from it. Not surprisingly, this culture is based on musical merch. Music, especially in the United States, brings together and affects a huge number of people. Big changes began to happen with the rise in popularity of social media and thanks to celebrities. In 2015-2016, Kanye West began to appear regularly in public in rare vintage T-shirts. The trend was picked up by the Jenner-Kardashian family, and, as you know, everything that these people wear instantly becomes a trend and soars in price. Shortly thereafter, the market exploded and continues to grow to this day. This effect is also well illustrated by the story of the "Heart Shaped Box" T-shirt of the group "Nirvana". Since Justin Bieber wore one to the American Music Awards in 2015, the cost has risen to $500, while now ranges from $2,000 to $4,000.
A little earlier than musical T-shirts, there was a merch of movies and cartoons. As stated earlier, one of the earliest examples of a printed T-shirt in general is the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. The first big success in this subcategory is the purchase of the rights to use Disney characters (including Mickey Mouse) by Tropix Togs in the 1950s, which is considered the first licensing for T-shirts. This event had a great influence on the popularization of graphic T-shirts in general. Also, Special Products, Inc. owned the rights to produce Disney merchandise. Henry Saperstein, even before the contract with Elvis. Merch has been released for almost every movie or character since the 60s. In September 2020, Aladdin's Jinn T-shirt sold for $6,000. The peculiarity of this thing is the so-called "All Over" or "Betl" print when the image occupies the entire surface of the T-shirt. An interesting fact - it was sold through an "Instagram Live" auction with a starting price of $ 1. Besides American classics like Disney and Warner Bros. characters T-shirts with anime - "Akira", "Evangelion", etc. have been in great demand lately. Comic T-shirts can also be included in this category. Before the cartoon tee boom last year, 90s Marvel tees were at the top in popularity and sales. The feeling of nostalgia in this case plays an almost greater role than in musical merch. Vivid memories from a happy childhood sell very well.
Another typical American story is the merch of manufacturers of various goods. By far the most popular are the motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson T-shirts, which began production in the 1960s. They feature a huge variety of designs, specific to different regions and dealers - from Texas to Alaska. Their T-shirts were worn by Kate Moss and Yoko Ono, of course Kanye, Jaden Smith and other celebrities. A couple of years ago the price for some "H-D" T-shirts went up to $500. It is also worth noting Coca-Cola in this category, whose clothing line was designed in the 80s by Tommy Hilfiger and Budweiser beer with their all-over logo designs, and Apple T-shirts.
Despite his love for music, cinema and brands, the vast majority of Americans are united by sports. This is another constant in the world of vintage T-shirts and a kind of subculture. There is something for everyone here - from the rather obvious basketball and baseball, to wrestling and NASCAR races.
For a younger audience, vintage skate and streetwear tees are of interest. In the 80s, the skate merch market was dominated by Powell Peralta, Santa Cruz and Vision Street Wear. But the real heyday came in the 90s, when along with the development of street skateboarding, a huge number of manufacturers of skate parts, magazines and clothing brands appeared. Most of the companies in the first two categories had their own merchandise. The most famous examples are The Independent Truck Company and Thrasher Magazine. The graphic design was very diverse and often exploited the popular themes of sex and rebellion among the target audience (teenagers). Also, vintage skate brands are notable for a large number of recognizable mascots - "Blind" skeleton, "Hook-Ups" anime girls, "Porn Star" stickmen, etc. Some of the popularity of this category was added by the recent film by Johnny Hill "Mid90s". Many of the T-shirts in it are real ones from the 90s, and some of them were reprinted by the team of stylists specifically for the picture with permission from the brands. Hill himself can often be seen wearing vintage "Grateful Dead" T-shirts.
Today's streetwear owes a lot to skateboarding and of course I mean Supreme. The price for vintage and rare T-shirts of this brand, especially the "box logo", can go up to several thousand dollars. The oldest and most respected street brand is "Stussy", founded in the early 80s, with its roots in surfer culture. Japanese vintages like the early "Hysteric Glamor" or "Bape" and "Undercover", which in the beginning of the journey printed their T-shirts on letterhead, are also appreciated by enthusiasts. Although they are not as expensive as Supreme, they are often rarer and more interesting.
In the world of vintage T-shirts, there is room for design creativity outside of brands, bands, etc. Many airbrush artists began using the T-shirt as a canvas back in the 50s, including, for example, Stanley Mouse and Ed Roth. Most of these artists made custom-made T-shirts at fairs as part-time jobs while traveling the country. The trend was short-lived and ended with the advent of new and more cost-effective technologies in the 60s, to re-energize the 80s along with graffiti and hip-hop. A team of three street artists led by Edwin "PHADE" Sakasa then created the "Shirt Kings", a custom T-shirt brand that quickly gained fame in the community and among celebrity clients. Their main invention was custom-made portraits of popular rappers. In recent years, many rappers and designers, including Kanye, have reverted to this aesthetic in their clothing.
Silk-screening became the next tool for artists, thanks to which many independent designers became locally famous for their custom prints. One of them is Don Rock, who is responsible for graphics for some of the Butthole Surfers T-shirts. His provocative collage works involve images of Jesus, Charles Manson, American presidents and babies, which are accompanied by abstract, near-political slogans. Rock's brand name "Terror Worldwide" perfectly defines the style of his work. Don still produces small batches of prints.
So, American vintage T-shirt culture is a huge sphere where anyone can find something interesting for themselves. Although some of its aspects are understandable and relevant exclusively for people immersed in the cultural context of the United States, feelings of nostalgia and belonging are international, and many want to have a rare T-shirt with their favorite artist or movie. Plus, it is now a good investment.
The opportunity to see this phenomenon live will be presented on July 17 at the opening of the pop-up American store MILLS VINTAGE in our showroom. The showroom will feature over 60 rare vintage music T-shirts, including: "New Order", "Bjork" with "Debut" album cover, "Butthole Surfers" by Don Rock, "Cro-Mags" font from "Best Wishes", tie-dye "Metallica" from the 1994 tour, and "MDC (Millions of Dead Corps)" from the 1992 tour of Russia. Come and don’t miss this unique opportunity to touch the history and American culture of vintage T-shirts! Registration for the opening of Pop-Up is in the link.
The T-shirts will be presented for a week, until July 24th.
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