From its humble roots as a way to preserve sailors’ modesty in hot weather during the Spanish – American war to its step into the mainstream based on veterans sporting them in post-WWII America, the t-shirt has a fascinating history. But no part of that history is more fascinating than its position as wearable art, which was fully embraced by the rock-and-roll community.
Until the 1950s, t-shirts were largely viewed as underwear. Wearing them in public was essentially unthinkable, until icons like John Wayne and James Dean wore them on television. The simple garments quickly became popular.
Sometime in the 1950s, the companies in southern Florida started decorated t-shirts with resort names and characters; in fact, one of the original licenses was for Disney. The massive industry was up and running. The technology kept pace, with screen printing developing in the 1960s, paving the way for mass production.
Screen printing technology allowed for a variety of colors on a design to be mass printed easily. The technology works like this: the colors of a design are separated out. Then water based inks are applied to the shirt through mesh screens that limit where they are deposited directly onto the cloth. Screen printed t-shirts became a fashion staple in the late 1960s with sports fans and rock & roll audiences.
As bands like The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd surged in popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, the mass production of t-shirts exploded. Album artwork, such as John Pasche’s tongue and lips design for The Rolling Stones, George Hardie’s prism design for Pink Floyd, and Grateful Dead cover art by Stanley Mouse, became iconic symbols of the times as the screen printing industry grew into a multi-million dollar business.
The technology opened up an entirely new way for bands to market their products, through the mass production of clothing. The Monster T-shirt Company, one of the first mass producers of rock n’ roll t-shirts, was formed in the mid 1960s. Around this time, the demand for blank t-shirts for screen printing increased dramatically, and companies such as Union Underwear (now Fruit of the Loom) saw exponential increases in sales. And suddenly the music and clothing industries became more intimately intertwined than ever before.
When popular bands first started mass producing t-shirts, they were generally only sold at concerts and on worldwide tours for set prices. Before long, after seeing the popularity of the t-shirts at concert venues, people started selling bootleg copies of official band t-shirts independently at discounted rates. While this bootleg industry was detrimental for the bands in that they didn’t receive a cut of the t-shirt sales, it still worked in their favor as it was free advertising for their albums.
While t-shirt artistic expression has evolved over the past fifty years, there is no denying the consistent relationship between the music industry and the t-shirt industry. Rock n’ roll t-shirts still remain a popular purchase amongst concert-goers, and artwork of new bands as well as the iconic art of the sixties and seventies can be seen on the racks in large department stores worldwide.