The Cultural Significance of the Graphic T-Shirt

“Standing behind a person wearing a "stay wild" shirt with a skeleton hand” by ian dooley on Unsplash

The humble T-shirt has been around for only a hundred years, and yet, like many of the inventions modernity has brought, it has come to permeate the daily lives and wardrobes of almost every developed and developing society on earth. As a staple of everyday street fashion, the T-shirt now symbolises a state of normality, neutrality, accessibility and simplicity.

T-shirts, and ‘streetwear’ in particular (a style of street fashion originating from Californian surf and skate culture, of which the T-shirt is a central pillar) provides an interesting opposing face to haute couture, as it is limited to casual and comfortable clothing and focuses on printing graphics, as opposed to fashion in the traditional cut-and-sew sense.

Despite essentially being the same piece of clothing, T-shirts fulfil different purposes as we choose to give them; versatile beyond many other modern upper body garments, a T-shirt is a cheap and comfortable piece of clothing able to carry any message we wish, from the sports teams we support to the political ideas we believe in. Thanks to the invention of screen-print and other inking methods, we can now imprint images and statements onto the very second skin of our bodies, available for everyone we meet to see and, potentially, to form opinions of us by.

In order to differentiate between the plain tee and printed tee, I will henceforth refer to T-shirts holding some form of visual print design on them as ‘graphic T-shirts’ or ‘graphic tees’. I will argue their cultural significance and value in our society today and in times past, as well as speculating on the future of the graphic tee in fashion from now on.

A Brief History

The T-shirt in its current form appeared first as an undergarment issued in the U.S. Navy in 1913, worn by serving men throughout the war and by veterans after it. The first on-screen appearance of the graphic tee was in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in 1939, and its first print appearance in ‘Life’ magazine in 1942.

The popularisation of the T-shirt as fashionable clothing, however, as opposed to military wear worn by veterans, came about only after Marlon Brando appeared in the film, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, wearing a white form-fitting plain tee, quickly bringing the T-shirt into fashion after the film’s release in 1951. After this, T-shirts both plain and printed were adopted by youths, with Mickey Mouse being one of the earliest commercial prints.

Although some began to use graphic tees for self-expression and ‘statements’ in the 60’s (such as for protests, advertisements and as souvenirs), it was not until the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the 70’s that T-shirts began to be be associated with ‘cool’ — something desirable and to associate oneself with. Bands began using T-shirts to promote themselves, and throughout the 70’s many of the most prolific and iconic T-shirt designs ever to be made were created, born thanks to ingenious design and arguably even more iconic bands. Just a few examples include The Ramones, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Pinkfloyd; two decades later, Nirvana would follow suit with their equally iconic smiley face.

Band T-shirts in particular are often looked upon with nostalgia today by those who experienced a part of the euphoria of following a band during these eras; on reading several accounts, one can start to identify the kind of importance these T-shirts held beyond merely covering the body:

More than anything, band T-shirts are about communicating hidden messages. In hindsight, I know how much meaning I inscribed to my Oasis Shakermaker T-shirt, worn to my first day at college, bought with paper-round money. It said: be gone, school; be gone, uniform; be gone financial dependence; hello all you new people who might understand me.” (Jude Rogers, The Guardian, 2011)

At the time, wearing the T-shirt of a band signified an allegiance beyond casual liking, a level of rebelliousness against the society of the time (especially as a young person) and a desire to communicate to others your appreciation of said band and their music. The band T-shirt was a way of simultaneously standing out and fitting in — confirming your identity as a member of a community of fans, whilst also setting you apart from the people who were not. As Rogers showed, the ‘hidden messages’ could declare your individuality whilst also subtly expressing a hope that what this T-shirt represented could become the connection between you and a stranger.

Moreover, the band T-shirt was extremely effective as a way of storing memories and generating nostalgia; concert T-shirts, for example, imbibed emotional value as a reminder of the time and place they were bought and the kind of person the buyer was at the time. Band T-shirts were a physical manifestation of one’s connection to a particular song, lyric or the ideals a band stood for; however, this kind of implicit relationship between a T-shirt and its owner would come to be eroded by the eventual ubiquity of the most iconic T-shirt designs, as I will describe later.

During the 80’s, corporate brands like Nike, Fila, Calvin Klein and Adidas began putting their logos on T-shirts and people wore these in abundance, happy to effectively advertise their favourite brands for free in an era of conspicuous consumption. It was also during this time that the skate and surf cultures (and their respective customs of board decoration) of Southern California began to expand and manifest themselves in the form of early streetwear, with brands like Stüssy, Billabong, Quiksilver and Maui & Sons at the fore.

Stüssy, in particular, was known for its parody of luxury brands, an example of which is their logo composed of two hooked S’s, created both in parody of and tribute to Coco Chanel’s two hooked C’s. Parodies and references to pop culture such as this, which brought high fashion to the streets in the spirit of pop art, were indicators of the accessibility of T-shirts and other streetwear and the influence pop culture had on normal people:

“[Stüssy] knew the importance of high fashion, and it was cool because if you’re a kid you can’t afford that stuff, but he made it so you were still wearing a legitimate version that’s respected in the streets.” (Eddie Cruz, 2012)

The T-shirt itself had now also become a far more versatile item of clothing than that it had started out as — a men’s military undergarment — thanks to its wide acceptance as a socially neutral and practical garment available for anyone to wear and personalise. This would pave the way for various movements of self-expression that would only became more diverse as the decades passed:

There was a real divergence by this time in what the T-shirt meant. It was a fully mainstream unisex garment, but its undifferentiated substance meant that for the first time a nearly identical, substantially undifferentiated garment could sell for next to nothing or a small fortune — an $80 designer T-shirt was essentially the same as a $5 bake sale special save for the content of its graphics. The T-shirt had become the ultimate carrier for all the most important postmodern signifiers: protest, politics, place (geographic and economic), preference.” (Unknown, Need Supply Co., 2015)

A single example of these self-expression movements is hip-hop, a cultural movement originating in 1970’s New York, but which began breaking cultural and racial barriers to become popular outside of the ethnically enclosed community from which it was born in the late 80’s. T-shirts and streetwear helped play a part in the rise of rap and hip-hop music and culture through to the early 90’s, and they remain a part of hip-hop culture today. Whilst the T-shirt itself was a common and accessible possession, limited availability and consequent reverence of T-shirts associated with the most influential rap artists (compared to band T-shirts which were relatively easy to obtain) powered the desirability of these T-shirts amongst their fans and, eventually, their significance as cultural memorabilia.

At its core, the hype surrounding hip-hop T-shirts at the time was reflective of the excitement surrounding and the soft power of the hip-hop movement as a cultural phenomenon, much like that of rock ‘n’ roll, skate and surf in the years before. Creating and wearing these T-shirts was about connecting people together and vehemently expressing the strength and personal significance of this connection; at its most powerful, wearing a particular T-shirt represented a strong engagement with a particular community, lifestyle or worldview and so had meaning, even if the T-shirt itself was of poor quality or the design itself had little aesthetic value.

The Modern T-shirt

From the late 90’s through to the 00’s, the graphic tee experienced a deterioration in quality and meaning, as many things which become ubiquitous do:

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 ubiquity and counterfeit knockoffs and everything was peddled by the zillions at Wal-Mart and Carrefour and Hot Topic. By the turn of the millennium, the graphic T-shirt had taken on a losery, almost Comic Book Guy pall. It had become a lazy shortcut for personal style and no matter its graphic content — Budweiser, Beavis and Butthead or George Bush — nothing really meant much.” (Unknown, Need Supply Co., 2015)

In short, the ease with which T-shirts can be produced, combined with the spread of information and consumerism through the Internet and the media, caused an all-round devaluation of even the most iconic and meaningful T-shirt designs. Vintage tees from past eras became collectible and thus fashionable; techniques such as stone-washing, crackle and burnout “recreated the worn-in look and feel of these coveted pieces” (Melmarc, unknown) and are commonly seen today on all manners of shirt designs.

In the new millennium, anyone could make their own T-shirts and sell them, and, on the other side, anyone was able to buy (cheap copies of) T-shirts once rare and revered, which once showed something genuine about the dedication and passion you had invested into whatever was on your T-shirt.

An example is the now exceedingly common ‘The Ramones’ T-shirt, sold in fashionable clothing stores such as Topshop and Urban Outfitters — companies which have no real connection with music and whose target audience does not include actual fans of the band. It is safe to assume that these stores do not expect the majority of the people who buy this T-shirt to be fans of the band, or perhaps even to know of them; what is more, the people who see others wearing this shirt also no longer expect this, even if they are, in fact, fans. In cases like this, the T-shirt fails as a method of self-expression.

In this saturated market filled with old designs, often regurgitated to the point of being meaningless, the only option for T-shirt wearers seeking to effectively express themselves is to either produce their own designs or search for new and original designers, the ideals of whom they subscribe to.

Therefore, only brands and designs of high quality, with original and / or meaningful and relevant content can stand out and attract these buyers. As the meaning of once iconic designs has been all but completely eroded and the ubiquity of these designs has reduced their fashionableness (as happens in the fashion cycle), complexity and artistic investment behind T-shirts is increasing in response to the saturation of recycled designs and ones worn without meaning. This has preserved some of the integrity of the graphic tee and helped to maintain its position both as a pillar of street fashion and a powerful method of self-expression through the 00’s and into the new decade.

Examples of labels worthy of attention in the current graphic tee world include Supreme, who do limited runs to preserve the value of their items, as well as those innovating in art for T-shirts such as Obey, Dirty Velvet and online communities of designers such as Threadless. In an interview with Dirty Velvet, they articulated exactly what it was that made ‘mainstream’ T-shirts, in their opinion, deplorable:

Generic designs, regurgitated brand names and logos that have no real substance, wasting what is a good canvas for people to express something about themselves. Designs that use imagery borrowed from pop culture without any original application. Rehashing well-worn themes or imagery mean these designs tend to offer nothing new in terms of ideas or interesting commentary about the world.” (Dirty Velvet, tutsplus.com, 2010)

Instead, T-shirts should have “something that engages the consumer on a deeper level than you might expect [from] yet another meaningless logo embellishment” (Dirty Velvet, 2010), and they, among other artists and labels, have achieved exactly this on their own interpretations of the T-shirt as art.

The T-Shirt as Identity

Having briefly looked at the history of graphic tees and discovered their significance to each generation in each era, we can begin to see just what the T-shirt has represented to the people who wore them and the almost limitless potential for expression that it holds. Most significantly, the T-shirt has made its way into both mainstream wear and the realm of high fashion as art by its inextricable tie to personal identity. Any piece of clothing can express something about its owner, but as a canvas for image and text, the graphic T-shirt (as well as the generations of print clothing it has inspired) has the unique ability to express complex ideas explicitly and precisely, whilst also appealing to personal aesthetic tastes.

The T-shirt can symbolise participation and belonging in a community; alternatively it can also be an expression of difference, whether in opinion, tastes or personality. It shows people information about ourselves without us having to say it, becoming an additional factor with which people can judge you on appearance, but with much more control over how explicit and precise this information is. It is an assertive and bold way of expressing yourself, expressing your likes and dislikes or personal opinions before anyone has had the chance to draw them out of you. By its first move, it can attract the people who share your preferences or opinions whilst repelling those who do not; simultaneously, though, it does not filter away those who are different to you but who are open-minded enough to accept new ideas and people.

It is markedly different to other objects of self-expression, such as posters or souvenirs, in that you carry it around and keep it close to you, literally. This symbolises a closer attachment or stronger intent, and is therefore a stronger indicator of the identity you want to assume and for people to see. As such, use of the T-shirt as identity expression is most effective when designs are well-aligned and consistent with your most subscribed-to ideals, strongest desires and personally significant ideas.

While the T-shirt is imperfect, insofar as it is not a universally accessible medium of expression — that is, not everyone designs their own T-shirts or can find or afford the exact T-shirts that they would like to have — it is universal enough, especially in the Internet age, that almost anyone can find their niche of interests expressed by a diverse community of skilled artists and designers and thus ‘collage’ for themselves a relatively accurate T-shirt identity. As the diversification of T-shirt designs and tastes or aesthetic preferences in general continues, as well as the increase in quality that niche independent design brings, this process will only become easier. In this way it is similar to something like music, which in the digital age has become accessible to almost everyone and which continues to diversify and evolve to cater to even more diverse tastes every day.

The T-Shirt as Equality

In my personal opinion, there is also an element of equality that wearing the humble T-shirt brings to whoever is wearing it. After all, at its most simple, all T-shirts are the same basic garment — they are gender-, age-, race- and, by their cheap production, socioeconomic-status-neutral. Since T-shirts are rapidly becoming available around the world, they are even becoming location-neutral. As comfortable garments that are easy to wear, they are also neutral to hobbies and body type; sportsmen and sports fans alike can wear them, as can the large, tall, short or small, without fear of judgement.

Thus, the ‘canvas’ that is the T-shirt becomes indifferent to the physical attributes of the person wearing it and can achieve a higher purpose as artistic expression, rather than just as a covering of the body. As globalisation continues and the range of people partaking in the same societies grows ever more diverse, this kind of neutrality will become increasingly more important, as a reminder to judge people not by appearances or wealth, but rather their thoughts and personal qualities.

From an arts perspective, T-shirts as canvases place the artists who design them on the same level, allowing them to ‘compete’ or express themselves without socioeconomic or educational inequality; for example, one does not have to have been to fashion school to be able to design T-shirts worthy of being worn, and there are plenty of examples of these.

Not only that, but the T-shirt, as a mass-produced garment, represents participation in a modern society, as an equal citizen; people wearing T-shirts symbolises an equality among them that is independent of education, socioeconomic status or other factors that clothes can and often do differentiate people by. Celebrities wearing T-shirts, or ‘normal’ clothes, is a symbol of accessibility and relatability and implies they are ‘normal’ people, no different to, for example, the children living in third world countries whose T-shirts are indications of the same. This is not to say civilisations of people that do not wear T-shirts are inferior to modern civilisations; rather, it is simply a reminder that in the materialistic modern world, equality in forms that matter are still very much present and relevant.

Conclusion

The cultural significance of the graphic T-shirt can be summarised as several of its attributes which make it an ideal and powerful form of self-expression.

Firstly, its versatility as a neutral canvas available to people of almost any status make it an extremely valuable tool for equalising people of various backgrounds and attributes and putting that which they choose to express at the fore, as the most important thing to look at. Its affordability and ease of production only assists this, especially the ease of which T-shirts can be designed by yourself — this gives people the choice between mass-produced and personalised fashion and radically increases freedom of expression via clothes.

Its close ties with identity allow it to fulfil the purpose of a uniform, by uniting people of a particular community, whilst also allowing for individuality; you can conform whilst standing out, purposefully bring yourself closer to or set yourself apart from other people, all in easily fine-tuneable ways. This adjustability is a crucial aspect to allowing people to feel free to express what they want when they want; you can fit in and stand out as you like.

As such, it is my opinion that the T-shirt, or its equivalent in future as a cheap, comfortable, unisex, socially neutral item of clothing which carries on it a space for explicit self-expression, whose aesthetic value and meaning does not rely on the body which is wearing it but rather the mind within, will continue to be relevant and popular into the future as people of different countries and communities gain more rights and presence in a more fully developed and globalised world that is more accepting of differences, as an assertive method of expression and symbol of both individuality and community, especially where higher, more exclusive fashion is not available to every individual.

Bibliography

· Unknown: ‘History of the Graphic T-Shirt’, Melmarc, date unknown. Accessed on 14/07/2016 at: http://www.melmarc.com/history-of-the-graphic-t-shirt/

· Unknown: ‘The Graphic T: A Brief History’, Need Supply Co., 2015. Accessed on 14/07/2016 at: http://blog.needsupply.com/2015/05/08/the-graphic-t/

· Rogers, Jude: ‘Band T-Shirts: ‘I warn you — don’t throw them out’’, The Guardian, 2011. Accessed on 15/07/2016 at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/oct/13/band-tshirts

· Ducker, Eric: ‘Tee and jam: two books treat hip-hop history with welcome irreverence’, The Guardian, 2015. Accessed on 16/07/2016 at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/06/tee-and-jam-two-books-hip-hop-history-welcome-irreverence

· DeLeon, Jian: The Oral History of Stussy Part 1, Complex Magazine, 2012. Accessed on 15/07/2016 at: http://www.complex.com/style/2012/12/the-oral-history-of-stussy-part-1/page/2

· Campbell, Clive; Chang, Jeff: ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation’, Picador, New York, 2005.

· Davies, James: ‘An In-Depth Look into the Graphic Tee — Part 1’, tutsplus.com, 2010. Accessed on 16/07/2016 at: http://design.tutsplus.com/articles/an-in-depth-look-into-the-graphic-tee-part-1--psd-8710