Dead to the World: The Resurgence of Grateful Dead Merch
Dead to the World: The Resurgence of Grateful Dead Merch
- Words Mitchell Goldstein
- Date October 19, 2017
Every army has their uniform, and for Deadheads that uniform is usually a tie-dyed T-shirt emblazoned with a skull, some roses and maybe a dancing bear. As the Grateful Dead have had a cultural resurgence in recent years (in no small part due to most of the surviving members touring with John Mayer as Dead & Company) there has been a wave of vintage Grateful Dead merch weaving its way into the fashion world. From reproduction bootleg tees, to new original designs, it's somehow become cool to sport the skull and roses again.
There are few fashion trends and movements more synonymous than hippies and tie-dye. While similar dying techniques like batik and shibori had been in the United States well before the ‘60s and the Summer of Love, tie-dying took off after psychedelic celebrities like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Joe Cocker were seen wearing it on stage. As fans learned how quick and easy it was to do at home, there was a rapid explosion of customized garments from dresses to scarves, to the now ubiquitous T-shirt. With Deadheads acting as one of the cross country networks for the LSD trade, it's no surprise they took to the customized colorful patterns for their own garments. As the droves of fans followed the band from city to city, they often funded their travels by selling food, trinkets, or hand printed shirts, including many tie-dyed ones, in the parking lot prior to shows. It didn’t take long for the Dead to start printing their own official tie-dyed merchandise soon after.
While there are a lot of different symbols and graphics associated with the band, the most famous Grateful Dead motifs are the “skeleton and roses”, and the skull and lightning bolt. The skeleton and roses first appeared on a 1966 concert poster designed by artists Stanley “Mouse” Miller and Alton Kelley, who found and copied the image from a book of persian poetry, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan. The graphic was later used on the self-titled 1971 live album from the Grateful Dead, often referred to as the “Skull and Roses” album, cementing the graphic in the band’s lore. The skull and lightning bolt graphic, which has the closest thing to an official logo for the band, was originally drawn on equipment cases by Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the band’s sound engineer, and sometimes tour manager, financier, and personal chemist. The graphic was later used on the cover of yet another live album, Steal Your Face. Referred to by heads as the “stealie,” the graphic has been adapted countless times by removing the thirteen point lightning bolt and replacing with sports team logos, political candidate’s faces, other bands or any other symbol you can think of that a Deadhead might support. From pizza to recycling, the adaptability of the Steal Your Face design has found even non-fans to working the band’s imagery into their wardrobe.
Since the band’s hiatus following the death of frontman Jerry Garcia in 1995, the Dead continued to live on in official releases of live recordings, band member’s side projects and solo music, and pop culture references. That being said, despite the Dead’s popularity, it wasn’t like being a Deadhead was ever really considered “cool.” It wasn’t until the band’s 50th anniversary in 2015 that yet another generation really caught on and their popularity in the mainstream surged again. After a run of shows to celebrate dubbed the ‘Fair Thee Well Tour’ the living members off the band, save for bassist Phil Lesh, announced they would be touring as Dead & Company, with John Mayer on lead guitar and vocals. Since the 2015 reunion, it seems like every closet Deadhead has been able to break out their vintage merch in pride.
Instagram accounts like From The Lot, Dead Shaman Supply, and Grateful Dead Notes collect and archive some of the various Grateful Dead T-shirts from over the band’s storied run, both fan made and official tees (marked with a ©GDM) and ephemera from around the world. While the graphics range from the tame to the extremely weird, the skulls, roses and dancing bears run rampant throughout the years. Common among bootleg tees were riffs on logos and pop culture, including D.A.R.E, Coca-Cola, The Endless Summer, Cheerios, Heineken, Patagonia and more. After building their archives for a while, From The Lot, Grateful Dead Notes, and many others started selling reproductions of these fan made tees, letting newer fans who might’ve never had a chance to score one in a smoky parking lot get the chance to buy one. There's also been a resurgence in new designs too. From a Steal Your Face/La Croix mashup courtesy of Thunderyells to the visual overload of newcomer favorites Online Ceramics, Deadheads old and new are following Dead & Company and selling their custom creations in the lot before shows as well as online.
While not everyone using tie-dye is a direct nod to the Dead, there are more than a few that have acknowledged the band’s influence on clothing and music. From Schoolboy Q’s tie-dyed merch, Flatbush Zombie’s use of the Steal Your Face motif and other nods to the Dead, mentions on TV shows and last years Day of the Dead tribute album have the band entering the zeitgeist from every direction. A now-infamous photo featuring unlikely street style star Jonah Hill features the actor wearing an especially bizarre piece of Grateful Dead merch; strapped for cash, the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team was financially supported with a check from The Grateful Dead, spawning some legendary Dead gear in the process. Even Kanye’s Yeezus Tour had merch designed by Wes Lang, bares a pretty strong resemblance to Lang’s art for the box set of 1990s Spring shows, Spring 1990: So Glad You Made It, as well as patches and accessories Lang designed for the band.
Everyone from Playboi Carti to Ezra Koenig have been seen rocking Grateful Dead gear, but perhaps none have embraced the comeback merch more than Dead & Company member John Mayer. Other than the infamous Online Ceramics tie-dyed Supreme x Louis Vuitton tee, and his custom WTAPS tee the Steal Your Face graphic added, Mayer’s also sported some first run Online Ceramics, a dancing bear zip-up sweater, and many tees from DES/WOBF. DES/WOBF comes from ex-House Industries designer Jeremy Dean. Dean originally made a run of tees featuring a distorted Steal Your Face head with the Black Flag logo inside, referencing Dead lyrics with “We Can Discover The Wonders of Black Flag” written around the skull. Dean later got hit with a cease and desist from the current Black Flag members. Since the popularity of those shirts, Dean has created tour merch for John Mayer, collaborated with Brothers Marshall, and designed latest graphics and merch for Dead & Company’s latest summer and fall tours.
Whether you’re getting into the music through the merch—or vice-versa—or even have no intention to ever listen to the jam band’s noodling guitars, there’s never been a better time to start wearing a Grateful Dead tee. There’s tie-dye on fashion week runways, you can wear your Tevas (or Chacos) with pride, and it might just finally be cool to be a hippie again. With tees promoting everything from recycling, to loving your fellow human, to nuclear disarmament, to just general peace love and understanding, maybe a little Deadhead mentality is just what the world could use at the moment.
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