From Icon to Iconic
WORDS BY SARA FABIAN / PHOTOS BY BLAINE EWIG
Overworn, over-loved, and appreciated by many, band T-shirts are a badge of identity, conveying a sense of community with the band that you love. They are a symbol of rebellious youth. Stuffed in a drawer or in the far reaches of your closet floor, these iconic tees are a style worth noting. T-shirts were once just unadorned garments. But with the evolution of screen-printing and the birth of band merchandising, T-shirts became much more individualized and accessible. Now, every band with an ounce of savvy knows the importance of a shirt, not only as a lucrative sideline, but as a means of self-promotion and a way for fans to show their support.
Until the 1950s, T-shirts were largely viewed as an undergarment. They were worn by the working class; sailors in the navy and factory workers. This was a standard way of dress until icons, like Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” appropriated the tee to fit Hollywood glamour. Almost instantly, these simple garments became popular. The evolution of screen-printing allowed for a variety of colors on a design to be mass printed.
During the screen-printing process, the colors of a design are separated out, then water-based inks are squeezed through mesh screens that limit where they are deposited directly onto the fabric. Screen-printed T-shirts became a true fashion staple in the late 1960s, with both sports fans and rock ‘n’ roll audiences.
When popular bands started mass-producing T-shirts, they were generally sold at concerts and on worldwide tours for set prices. Soon enough, people started selling bootleg copies of official band T-shirts independently at discounted rates. While this bootleg industry was detrimental to the bands because they didn’t receive a cut of the T-shirt sales, it also worked in the band’s favor as it was free advertising. Today we can see this with many street vendors and artists putting their ownmark or exact remake of a band tee.
Bands like the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd propelled to popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, during the same time that the mass production of T-shirts exploded. Staple bands in the punk rock movement as well created concert tees. After catching wind of fame bands used their album cover art to push themselves further into pop culture. 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.
While artistic expression through T-Shirts has evolved over the past 50 years, there is no denying the consistent relationship between the music industry and the T-shirt industry. Rock ‘n’ roll and band tees of all genres still remain a popular purchase among concert-goers. If you are looking to support a band you enjoy, buying a tee at a show is a great way to both promote their music and creatively adorn yourself. We, the people, have the power to support our friends and create new fashion trends through something as simple as a band tee.