|By Brett Weiss
There are few things more American than wearing a favorite T-shirt to a bar or a sports arena, or even to a more formal, more sober establishment, such as school or church. This wasn’t always the case, however.
Named for their outer shape, T-shirts began as undergarments used by the military during the late 19th century and early 20th century. The light, white, unadorned, form-fitting shirts were sometimes worn without accompanying outer garment by military men, farmers, and blue collar workers, especially those toiling in warmer climates, but they were usually worn under collared button-up shirts.
Modern-style printed tees featuring collegiate logos date back to the early 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the T-shirt became an approved form of outerwear among the general public.
As with many fashion trends, Hollywood is to “blame” for the widespread acceptance of the visible T-shirt, namely Marlon Brando sporting a white tee over his muscular frame in the 1951 feature film, A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando in The Wild One (1953) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) further popularized the sartorial shift.
The first rock concert T-shirt was produced by one of Elvis Presley’s fan clubs during the late 1950s, and shirts featuring The Beatles go back as far as 1964. However, it wasn’t until the hippie era of the late 1960s that the rock concert T-shirt arrived as a viable commercial product. The late ’60s also saw the advent of political protest T-shirts, such as those designed by Warren Dayton, who pioneered the use of the T-shirt as an art medium.
The proliferation of the rock concert T-shirt is due in large part to famed concert promoter Bill Graham (1931-1991), owner and operator of the legendary venues Filmore West (San Fancisco) and Filmore East (New York City). Graham produced shows featuring such psychedelic acts as the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, often using T-shirts to help promote and make money for the bands.
Prior to Graham’s involvement in the industry, most concert T-shirts were printed in small quantities and given to insiders, such as managers and/or the band members themselves. A marketing guru, Graham is also known for hiring local artists to draw and paint psychedelic fliers and posters to help promote his shows, which frequently sold out.
During the early 1970s, many of the rock concert T-shirts sold were cheaply made bootlegs produced without the respective band’s permission. Heavy bootlegging continued well into the 1980s, but is better policed today (though it still exists) thanks to more stringent law enforcement regarding copyright protection. The first company to purchase licensing rights for merchandise (including T-shirts) from numerous rock bands and artists was Winterland Productions (circa mid 1970s), owned by — you guessed it — Bill Graham, a music marketing magnate with few peers.
The average concert T-shirt is black or white (though red and other colors are sometimes offered), decorated on the back and/or front with colorful silk-screened imagery of the band, their logo, and/or some type of esoteric design related to the band (or performer). Well known designs include big lips with tongue sticking out (The Rolling Stones), a naked winged man (Led Zeppelin), a demonic looking creature named Eddie (Iron Maiden), and many more.
Tour dates for the band often appear on the backs of the shirts, which are typically made from a cotton/polyester blend or, better yet, fashioned from 100 percent cotton. Short sleeve shirts are the most popular, but ¾ sleeve baseball shirts, tank tops, and other garments are usually offered as well. The shirts from the ’60s and ’70s generally had more basic designs (though there are psychedelic exceptions) while shirts from the ’80s were often more elaborate and colorful. During the stripped down grunge movement of the early ’90s, simplicity reemerged.
Today, vintage concert T-shirts are highly sought-after by collectors. Not only do they hold nostalgic appeal, but they are extremely rare. The vast majority of T-shirts bought at rock shows of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were worn until they were threadbare (or until fashion trends dictated other styles) and thrown out or donated to the local thrift store. Relatively few baby boomers and other seasoned music fans had the foresight or dumb luck to save their T-shirts from their concert-going days. Even fewer thought to buy extras to put away as collectibles or souvenirs.
Collector, entrepreneur, and musician Geoff Ledet kept some of his old concert tees, but, like most people, he wore and washed them numerous times, meaning they’re hardly in pristine condition. “Most of the original shirts I have are in pretty bad shape,” he says. “I re-bought the ones that I thought would become collectible.”
Ledet is the founder of VintageConcertShirt.com, a website that catalogs (and occasionally sells, if the offer is strong enough) rock, heavy metal, and new wave concert T-shirts. Ledet attended his first rock concert in 1982. “It was Van Halen on their Diver Down tour,” he says. “I was in my early teens, as innocent as can be. At that time, Van Halen was the biggest touring band in the world. It was an amazing show — the band was on fire and the crowd was insane. I still feel like I’m recovering!”
Owner of 35 vintage rock concert T-shirts, Ledet got his first at that life-changing Van Halen show. “I forgot I had the shirt until I found it in a dusty storage bin at my parent’s house about eight years ago,” he says. “I had cut the sleeves off of it, which was the style at the time. I thought it would be fun to get a nicer version as a memento. I looked on eBay, found one, bid on it and won. I found some other rare concert shirts on eBay at the time, and I was hooked.”
To many, the rock concert T-shirt is an ephemeral commodity, ranking just ahead of the beer koozie and the plastic cup in terms of souvenirs commemorating a particular event. Ledet, however, sees the T-shirt as much more than that. “I dig rock music,” he explains. “To me, the pinnacle of big rock was in the ’70s and early ’80s — Zeppelin, The Stones, The Who, Van Halen, Kiss. Magic happened at those shows. It would have been great to see Led Zeppelin in ’75 or ’77, but I was too young. When I have a shirt from one of those concerts, I feel connected to a time in history I wish I were able to experience first-hand.”
Ledet’s favorite shirts in his collection are also among the most valuable concert items he owns. “I have a shirt from Led Zeppelin’s 1975 tour,” he says. “I’ve seen it on eBay going for $450-$550, but it’s hard to know exactly what a shirt is worth. It all depends on what people will pay. I’ve also got a 1987 Guns-N-Roses [$350], a 1982 Mötley Crüe [$400], and a 1982 Iron Maiden [$350].”
To acquire vintage tees, Ledet recommends eBay. A recent eBay search turned up the following “Buy it Now” prices for authentic concert tees: Led Zeppelin Tour 1977 In Concert and Beyond ($1,800); Black Sabbath Sabbath Bloody Sabbath 1977 ($749); Queen Live in Concert 1978 two-sided shirt ($249); KISS World Tour 79 ($1,000, never worn or washed); The Who American Tour ’82 ($49); Judas Priest Screaming for Vengeance 1982 ($280); Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet 1987 ($225); White Lion 1988 ($200, never worn or washed); and Tears for Fears Tour ’85 ($199).