A Brief History of Vintage Band Tees
A Brief History of Vintage Band Tees
- Words Grailed Team
- Date March 9, 2021
The band T-shirt has evolved over the years since its simple beginnings in the 1960s. What was once a concert souvenir has since turned into a fashion trend. How did the symbolism of counterculture get co-opted by mainstream fashion?
The earliest sightings of band T-shirts as we know them today were the T-shirts that teenage bobby-soxers and rockabillies would wear in the 1940s. The avid fans would plaster their beloved artists (think Frank Sinatra) across their clothes to show admiration and as an act of nonconformity. In the latter half of the 1950s, promoters and bands alike noticed the unseen demand for official merchandise in the music industry. One such person was Bill Graham. Bill Graham was a preeminent rock producer who ushered in the ’60s San Francisco sound by developing acts like the Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Graham was adept at finding ways to monetize the music industry, which did receive a fair share of criticism amidst a wave of anti-capitalism sentiment spreading across the music industry. However, Graham supported many artists by opening the Fillmore East & West halls and breaking black artists to a white audience at his concerts (like scheduling B.B. King to play the same night as The Who). His company Winterland grew to become the premier rock T-shirt merchandiser globally and made the concert ringer T-shirt a cornerstone of the rock show experience.
By the late 1960s, T-shirts were being widely used by the emerging subcultures (punk, goths, mods) and protest groups — to display their cultural identity and values to the world proudly. For those budding subcultures, the band tee was an expression of a POV by directly referencing a musical genre or specific artist.
Given music’s history in activism, the band tee (depending on the artist emblazoned upon it) was a way to combat social injustice and (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) to demand the end of the longstanding war in Vietnam. Radical messages and fondness of psychedelic prints converged when illustrator Warren Dayton's work started to gain notoriety. This culmination fits perfectly with the Grateful Dead's rise; the band’s merchandise created a unique visual language that didn’t just broadcast what the band represented, but created a DIY style that people are still clamoring for to this day. The T-shirts were a way to share who you are and what you're about before even uttering a word.
In the 1970s, we saw the seismic shift with the introduction of stadium rock. According to historian Glenn A. Baker, the widely popular band AC/DC became a merch pioneer as one of the first bands to ever make more from merch sales than ticket sales, which is a testament to how wildly successful tour merch had become. The band T-shirt boom shepherd in a new wave of concert souvenirs (ranging from other apparel like hats to toys like bobbleheads) catered to diehard fans. Even after their heydays in the 1960s, iconic groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones soon jumped in with their own ongoing collections of branded gear to capitalize off of this new unprecedented trend.
In the coming decades, we saw the prevalence of merch almost usurp the popularity of the band's music itself. Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon prism graphic, The Rolling Stones’ "Lips and Tongue” symbol," and Nirvana's "Smiley Face" tees have now become widely recognizable in the greater cultural zeitgeist—even if you're not familiar with one song from any of the groups. The "Smiley Face" logo allegedly drawn on an apartment wall by Cobain himself can now be found worldwide. Band merchandise had now become a highly lucrative business, especially as the physical music sales dwindled continuously from the late 20th century and into the present day.
The punk counterculture continued to grow over the next few decades (particularly our of the 1980s and into the 1990s), and we started to see more and more of its influence hitting the runway. Designers like Raf Simons, Marc Jacobs, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Vivienne Westwood were enamored with punk iconography and added its aesthetics to their respective collections throughout their illustrious careers.
In a modern context especially Jun Takahashi's Undercover Spring/Summer 2006 "T" collection blurred the lines of fashion and the music industry more than ever before.
Takahashi and punk culture had always been intertwined. Even in the early days of Undercover, when he was developing the brand while running NOWHERE with NIGO, he strived for his pieces to embody the punk style of his youth. Prior to ’06, the designer had incorporated references to musical artists in his collection, such as Fall/Winter 2004 with Patti Smith's work and the Cobain-like cardigans of the Fall/Winter 1995 women's collection. The "T" collection, most importantly, was the designer bringing these references to the forefront.
The collection was based around five bands imagined by the designer, with clothes geared to the type of music each group made. "I was imagining progressive-rock German bands," the mastermind designer shared after the showing of the collection, which can be picked up by the gothic headpieces constructed from chains and faded photos of album covers. In regards to the several appearances of distressed T-shirts, Takahashi stated that he was intrigued with, "Taking something simple and limited, and seeing what you can do with it."
Jun Takahashi's Fall/Winter 2006 "T" collection was a forerunner to even more luxury fashion brands' attempting to incorporate punk rock influences into their pieces. Nicolas Ghesquiére's Balenciaga collection for Fall/Winter 2012 featured sweatshirts with "Join a Weird Trip" printed in Iron Maiden's famous red typeface, which gave way to the "Egyptofunk" capsule collection of similar tees and hoodies. That’s only one example—there’s countless others, especially in the 2010s.
In the 2010s, and especially for men’s fashion, the punk and hard rock-inflected look was cemented in menswear thanks to Hedi Slimane’s revitalization of Saint Laurent, weaving the history of L.A.'s punk roots into every one of his collections. While Slimane was more focused on curating and recreating the overall rock aesthetics of the 1960s, ’70s and early-’80s (think leather jackets and skin-tight denim), his influence undoubtedly played a role in building buzz around the silhouette and the aesthetics behind the band tee.
After seeing the collections’ popularity, the industry would see more luxury fashion brands enter into the fray with their reinterpretations. Vetements’ now-famous Fall/Winter 2015 collection had a multitude of pieces that heavily leaned into the heavy-metal merch of the past. The pieces from the collection were famously photographed and endorsed by Kanye West, which quickly made it one of the most desired brands at the time.
With the explosion of motif in fashion following celebrity cosigns and street-level buzz, we would see many more attempts, including Loewe’s take on Slayer's circular logo, and 1980s metal-inspired logos from Versace.
Of course a major proponent of the contemporary popularity surrounding the band tee was Jerry Lorenzo. From the outset, Lorenzo's label Fear of God label was striving to bring a modernized version of the '90s grunge scene to the center stage of fashion—informed by his roots in L.A. and his past as a stylist. Elongated T-shirts and sleeveless flannels became the staples of the brand. Following a string of cosigns—including from those around and including Kanye West—Fear of God was quickly picked up by luxury retailers, including the FourTwoFour on Fairfax and the now-defunct Barneys New York. While Lorenzo was busy growing his cut-and-sew operation, ultimately evolving into a much larger universe of brands and sister labels, his earliest successes were slightly customized vintage band tees. While these tweaked tour T-shirts were not the most rigorous designs (often just screenprinting Fear of God on T-shirts from bands like Metallica or Nirvana), they were an early indication of Lorenzo’s quest to find and design the “perfect” T-shirt. As Lorenzo explained to GQ at the time, “The tees of late ’80s early ’90s featured proportions with more volume, the tees were a little cropped compared to tees now, and they just fit in better with the way I dress.” Those proportions would go on to directly inform future Fear of God designs across the board (and, for what it’s worth, remain as a symbol of Lorenzo’s connection to the culture and the music that shaped his artistic vision).
Of course, the fashion’s relationship with the “band tee” style doesn’t simply end with reinterpretations of famous graphics or flips on established bands’ iconography. Fashion designers are continuing to find inventive ways to build on the idea of merch. Virgil Abloh—himself a master of merch—put his spin on merch with the screen printed tees given out for his first show at the helm of Louis Vuitton’s menswear. This is to say nothing of Abloh’s series of collabs with the incredibly buzzy cult brand Chrome Hearts—dropping collaboration T-shirts that clearly riff on the tour T-shirt’s lineage.
Of course, the rise in the band T-shirt as we round the 2010s and move into the 2020s is a fascination with the style and aesthetics surrounding one of the earliest pioneers of concert merch—the Grateful Dead. In 2015, the surviving members, Trey Anastasio filling in for the late Jerry Garcia, went on a final tour to commemorate the band's 50th anniversary. The "Fare Thee Well" tour brought together longtime fans and ushered in a new generation of "Deadheads" to listen to deep cuts and swap vintage merch.
The tour proved to be so successful that the members, except Phil Lesh, decided to tour once more. This time around, though, the band would be accompanied by John Mayer to make up Dead and Company. The addition of Mayer put more attention on the band's music, but the merch as well. Mayer, known for his adventurous style, brought on ex-House Industries designer Jeremy Dean to design the tour's merch; Mayer discovered Dean after finding his Dead-inflected DIY designs while browsing around online. Dean’s work was only one representation of the burgeoning DIY streetwear scene being pioneered by this new generation of Deadheads, influenced by the band’s own freedom-loving (even psychedelic) founding principles. This includes notable brands like Online Ceramics and Petrified Goods, but extends much further into the broader streetwear conversation of the 2020s. The band's long history psychedelic, left-field influence on music and merchandise was documented masterfully in photographer and cultural critic Mordechai Rubenstein's book, "Dead Style: A Long Strange Trip Into the Magical World of Tie-Dye."
As we look at the future of the band tee, it feels even less rooted in the rock n’ roll that started it all. Sure the rise of a new wave of Deadheads is certainly behind the influx of new creativity around the tried-and-true silhouette, but it’s probably easier to see the band tee manifested in the world of hip-hop. Masters of merch like Travis Scott have turned his music into a branding machine; the artist’s 2018 smash album Astroworld defined its own visual language and was a foundational building block in turning Scott into one of the most bankable stars in the modern music industry. This is to say nothing of the long lineage of rap tees that emerged and evolved alongside the rock-infused band T-shirt (though, in all fairness, that’s a story for a whole other post).
Whether you’re sorting through vintage tees for grails from bands that have long-since stopped touring, investing in a high fashion-remix from luxury label or searching for merch from the most popular artists of the present day, there’s no stopping the timeless appeal of the band tee, the concert T-shirt or the tour tee. Check out some of our favorite finds below.