A Brief History of the Rock T-Shirt Market
T-shirts are humble garments that have outgrown their beginnings as underwear to become part of the uniform of youth all over the world. Rock t-shirts have become a significant player in the music memorabilia market, especially collectibles, and vintage t-shirts, which fetch high prices and increase in value very quickly over time.

Marlon Brando, who often wore them in his movies, was one of the first celebs to make them iconic. Popular television stars like Don Johnson on Miami Vice added to their cachet by making it acceptable to wear t-shirts under expensive sports coats. Wearing a stylish t-shirt became a fashion statement. Not bad for an undershirt with sleeves.

It all began when t-shirts evolved from 19th-century undergarments. The one-piece “union suit” that many men wore beneath their clothing was cut into separate top and bottom garments. The tops were long enough to tuck under the waistband of the bottoms. With or without buttons, these odd outfits were favored by miners, stevedores, and other workers as a convenient way to dress for hot days or hard work.

The first t-shirt appeared between the 1898 Spanish–American War and 1913 when the U.S. Navy issued them to its sailors. Crew-necked or short-sleeved, the white cotton undershirts were worn under a uniform but were frequently worn as everyday clothing by sailors and Marines who served in tropical climates. They learned that when they took off their uniform jackets to work, they soiled only their undershirts, which fit well, were easy to clean, and cheap. More and more workers from farmhands and factory workers to bricklayers and firemen also began to wear them for similar reasons.

Soon t-shirts became the apparel of choice for young boys and their tomboy sisters. Some girls even wore them to show how emancipated they were. Boys' t-shirts were made in various colors and patterns, an unintended consequence that made t-shirts more appealing to girls and women. By the 1920s. “t-shirt” entered American English and the name stuck.

By the time the Great Depression kicked in, the t-shirt had become the favorite attire for many, again because they were cheap to produce and sold for much less than other types of clothing. After the Second World War, it was common to see veterans wear t-shirts with their uniform trousers. Life Magazine featured printed t-shirts on the cover of Life in 1942.

The shirts became even more popular in the 1950s after Marlon Brando wore one in A Streetcar Named Desire. Often boys wore them while doing chores and playing outside, wearing them almost every day, whether at school or at home. Young girls liked them, too, and began wearing them whenever they could get away with it. Boys liked the way they filled them out.

By the 1960s, printed t-shirts became even more popular in the US, not just for work or casual dress but for advertising purposes, self-expression, protests, and just as souvenirs.

In the 1960s, the ringer t-shirt appeared and became an essential fashion statement for rock and rollers. The decade saw the emergence of tie-dyeing and screen-printing for basic t-shirts, and they became a medium for wearable art. In the late 1960s, Richard Ellman, Robert Tree, Bill Kelly, and Stanley Mouse founded the Monster Company in Mill Valley, California to produce fine art designs explicitly for t-shirts. The company’s t-shirts often featured art associated with the Grateful Dead and the growing marijuana counter-culture. Additionally, the political movements of the 1960s made t-shirts a part of their look.
Over time, different styles, designs, and fabrics from crewnecks and V-necks began to find a ready market, especially among high school and college students. Rocking t-shirts with audacious slogans became a way of making more than just a fashion statement in the UK in the 1980s. In the US and Europe, t-shirts were now sometimes worn on the top half of the body, over a bra or without one (if a woman was going braless) or under a vest.

Although t-shirts typically reached the waist, when hip-hop fashion came along, long t-shirts worn to the knees with baggy pants were suddenly in vogue. Women had worn long t-shirts as nightgowns even before they took to wearing them in public. A 1990s trend for women involved tight-fitting t-shirts short enough to show off their navels and eventually their tattoos.

The growth of online shopping in the early-to-mid-2000s created an explosion of new t-shirt ideas, many of them pioneered by dot-com startups in Silicon Valley. In the mid-60s, we had already seen tie-dyed t-shirts, first among hippies in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and soon after in much of the nation, particularly in college towns.

Their popularity now has even made a dent in the senior citizens’ market. It’s no longer uncommon to see older folks in tees, especially among the baby boomers, the oldest of whom are now 70 and associate band t-shirts with music memorabilia. Just after tee-shirts began to become a big business about 40 years ago, the market started to expand in virtually every demographic.

A market now exists for all manner of t-shirts, although e-commerce store owners have to do their research and understand the level of demand for the types of shirts they want to sell. With a clear strategy for procurement, sales and order fulfillment, firms like Shopify now help new e-commerce store owners establish their ventures.
A growing mass market for t-shirts

T-shirts can easily be purchased from wholesalers for resale in a number of ways. This approach to selling rock apparel, concert t-shirts, and other popular items reduces the need for design and production by sellers, allowing more emphasis on the marketing side of the business. T-shirts can be sourced from printers, drop shippers, or wholesalers who warehouse the rock merchandise. A prospective e-commerce site will find drop shipping an effective solution for both obtaining items and delivery service.

This approach means that e-commerce vendors don't have to deal with the production of shirts or drop shipping. They don't have to worry about storing and shipping them to customers. The downsides are a reduced level of involvement in the creative process and fewer opportunities for quality control. Online merchants who dropship may have less control over the shipping process, but if they sell in high volume, they can usually overcome any problems they encounter.
The t-shirt market can seem over-saturated, but the rise of Shopify and other e-commerce platforms has taken much of the technical work out of launching a t-shirt business. This led to a massive increase in apparel startups, but savvy vendors can still capture market share by having a great-looking website, expert marketing skills, and great content. If a vendor knows how to find an audience and convert them into customers, they can still stand apart from the competition. It requires creativity, commitment, and perseverance.

Niche markets

Concert t-shirts have become one of the most successful niche markets for music memorabilia to be found online. A branded band t-shirt bearing a group's name and logo is not only in high demand by fans but offers opportunities for collectors and investors who anticipate increased value over time for the items they purchase.

The first real concert t-shirts appeared in the late 1950s, offered by an Elvis Presley fan club. The idea only really took off a decade later, when concert promoter Bill Graham started selling profile-raising t-shirts for San Francisco and other Bay Area bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. By the 1970s, concert t-shirts became band merchandise, soon-to-be music memorabilia and part of the city’s history.

A Slayer t-shirt from the '80s is just one example of the way the concert t-shirt market works. Some people collect old concert t-shirts but forget they have them. A quick check on eBay may tell them that 1980s band t-shirts routinely sell there for hundreds of dollars.

Original concert t-shirts in good condition may sell for thousands of dollars to collectors. If you still have an old Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones t-shirt hanging in a closet or stuffed away in a bedroom drawer, you may have hit the jackpot. But let the buyer beware. Deal only with vendors you can trust and provide provenance. In today’s hi-tech era, it’s easy to counterfeit a rare older t-shirt and make it appear like a vintage rock t-shirt to an untrained eye. Don’t be fooled. Trust but verify.

Important stuff, like identifying outdated t-shirt brands in past decades from master lists can keep you from making a costly mistake. Experts have such lists, so consult them before you buy.

People who buy from trusted sources certainly aren't getting a "deal," but they are getting value. If you are investing in the futures market in vintage t-shirts, make sure you’re buying the real thing. To be absolutely sure, buy something new from a vendor you can rely on. And purchasing a rock t-shirt can help support an artist trying to survive in the era of digital downloads.

Gene Simmons, of KISS, might have told us that rock died some time ago, but he knows enough to invest in the music memorabilia, rock t-shirts and a chain of cafes that buys and sells collectible rock and roll merch. Classic rock bands still fill arenas, bringing in $300,000,000 a year at present and showing no signs of slowing down. An original concert t-shirt from a band’s glory years sells for $10,000 or more. The market for vintage rock t-shirts has exploded in recent years and hasn’t found its ceiling and maybe never will.

Vintage rock apparel of all kinds is rocking the music memorabilia market these days. The MTV Unplugged cardigan was once worn by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain recently sold at auction for over $137,500. If you own vintage t-shirts—or cardigans—of your own, now might be a good time to find out what they’re worth. The t-shirt market is an excellent place to add to your collection of music memorabilia right now.



James Brian

Fantastic t-shirt design! Everyone gets captivated by seeing these t-shirts design. Thanks for sharing this illustrative blog with us.


Why is Gene Simmons formerly of KISS?


I worked for UC Berkeley jazz festivals and got hired as strong arm security guard who had experience dealing left the hells angels etc by event security who did security for bill gramm events all around the San Francisco Bay area. I have the 1st set of days on the green shirts and my event security shirt and I’m interested in selling them a. What is the best venue for me to explore? They are all in good to excellent condition.

Mark Glover Masterson


Great! article.
Has there ever been a documentary film made on the history of t-shirts?


- MG Masterson

Mark Glover Masterson

Oct. 12th, 2018

Hello RT:

Well documented article. Thx! for the share and strong research and writing work.

Curious, has a documentary film ever been made (to your knowledge) on the history
and social significance of the ubiquitous t-shirt?


- MG Masterson
Vancouver, Canada

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