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Graphic Tee's

September 06, 2018

Graphic Tee's

I’m going to give you a run down on the graphic t. Where did they come from, why are they so popular, what do they say about us?

Well, first I want to share the history of the graphic t.

The t-shirt got its name from the shape itself resembling the letter T, and was first adopted in the late 1800’s as a layering item for the Navy uniform to 1. Help wick sweat from the body, which would dry quickly if the air was warm on the water - and 2. when worn under their then wool uniforms helped trap heat when it was cold. It ALSO helped reduce BO ;)

The very first on-screen appearance of a graphic-t was in the 1939 classic, Wizard of Oz.

The workers who were re-stuffing the scarecrow all had on green shirts with capital letters OZ.

My hunch is that the directors or costumers 1. Wanted to reinforce that they were in OZ or 2. Wanted to make sure the viewers knew those workers were a unified group all working together for OZ because he was the all mighty and powerful - almost like these workers belonged to him.

Next, supposedly the first time a graphic t was in the media/print, was on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1942 which featured the Air Corps Gunnery School T-shirt.

At this time, it became commonplace to see WWII veterans and blue collar workers wearing Army-issued t-shirts/ hand-me downs, some with graphic or lettering and some were plain, but had the iconic snug fitted style.


(Vintage U.S. Army 40th Division Tee and U.S. Army Medical Corps Tee)

Mickey Mouse would follow suit a few years later…

Then musical bands….

And fashion brands…….

Places we’ve traveled

And specific museums, memorials and attractions...

And of course we’ve seen the style and trends of text, colors and shapes evolve into more modern styles and graphics but the biggest change is the shift from PLACES, BANDS, DESTINATIONS, BRANDS to non-brand identifying phrases. With the exception of a few brands that really want their logo visible.

We used to wear t-shirts as a designation of belonging to a group, which originated in America through our military. So our appreciation for this group is quite strong and has, in my opinion, set the tone for how important symbolic representation is for Americans.

The way most and many still feel about the iconic bands of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s is much stronger than how we feel about bands today. And I think it’s because our graphic shirts are an expression of what is important during specific times in history. Graphic t-shirts have always been a direct way to reflect an individual's ethos through affiliation. Whether that be through the military, a music group, a brand, a person or a place traveled. Our clothing has always been a non-verbal form of communication to express what we value OR  who we want to portray. But graphic t-shirts do this in a much more powerful way that an outfit without imagery or words. The graphic t has the power to non-verbally communicate 1. Who I am, 2. What I believe in and 3. What I will and will not tolerate. Beyond this, the graphic t serves to bring people together and at the root of our humanness that is what we desperately desire at this point in history.

Let me explain how we see graphic t-shirt trends and their respective affinity change depending on that time in history. For the record; The following thoughts are based on my analysis of historical events and how I viewed them in parallel graphic t-shirt trends. Hope you enjoy!

During WWII, military issued t-shirts served to help build comradery as well as help commanding officers know who was part of their order. Wearing these was a point of pride and patriotism. When the war ended, people begin wearing these as part of their leisure clothing.

Graphic t’s non-verbally communicate several things about a person and what that person believes in.

The person wearing a PT military t-shirt tells you:

  1. They had served in the military
  2. A loved one/ friend has served OR
  3. They are currently enlisted

Then, we make assumptions about this person based on the values of the association (our military) During that time, it meant that:

  1. It was an honor and duty to your country
  2. You were honorable, loyal and willing to give your life for our freedom

Talk about a powerful ethos. I don’t blame people for wanting to wear these as street wear. Especially after the war, many did not want to talk about their experiences but they wanted people to know that they had served and it was almost a calling card to other veterans, where talking about experiences would be best understood.

Then, after the war, we see WWII t-shirts popularized through films, which was a popular pastime that helped Americans cope with the reality of what they’d just been through. Leave up to Marlin Brando to popularize the snug fitted t-shirt in his classic 1951 film "a streetcar named desire".

Then, the 1960’s brought a time of political distrust which meant wearing a military shirt fell out of favor with the masses. It was a this time that music came to be a major source of recreation and pleasure. It was a time when understanding feelings through music was helpful to many and made it easier to connect with these bands. Therefore, we see a major rise in band graphic t-shirts - people were affiliating with a band instead of the government. We see a decrease in the military t’s and an increase is musical rock bands. This trend hit really hard in the 70’s when music and freedom was paramount. This was also a time of great mistrust and disdain for authority and Led Zeppelin was there to help unite the rebellion.

The next major shift I see in graphic t’s was in the 1990’s . We see a major increase in travel in the 90’s that corresponded with the longest recorded economic expansion in American history. When people traveled, they would purchase a destination t-shirt. The graphic-t was now a status symbol. It communicated that the wearer was wealthy enough to take time off to travel, and helped them either brag about the trip or connect with other people who may have also traveled to the same place. It was no longer used as a way to unite the masses - but instead show how well traveled, wealthy and/or educated individual people were. Think of the I heart New York t's or the Road Kill Cafe.

The 2000’s brought a wave of economic downturn and minimalism where we didn’t see a lot of graphic t-shirts. The dotcom bubble burst and a lot of lost money. But graphic t’s represent how people feel socially - and this decade gave legal right to same-sex marriage. And yes, there were some graphic t-shirts with words and phrases but most were still organizations, groups, places, music groups or brands. However, I think this is where the trend of phrases on t-shirts really took hold. In a lot of protests for same-sex marriage, you’ll see mostly signs and posters and those posters slowly began shifting onto trucker hats then t-shirts. By now, graphic shirts were mainstream and anything was subjected to being written on…..shoes, bracelets, hats, jackets, fanny packs, etc.

Fast forward today and most consumers today are no longer interested in being a walking billboard for anyone. Consumers, including myself, want to be individual and have our voices heard. For so much of recent history, voices of the middle class have been silenced and we feel that one real and tangible way of expression is through phrases or words on t-shirts or tank tops.

As consumers, the majority of americans have the ability to access nearly anything they could desire through the internet. Before, you wore what was provided for you - and affiliated with things that were a close representation of yourself, but in that way, your choice of expression was limited. But now, we’re at a point in history where we can have shirts made for us with literally ANYTHING. And perhaps this ability has been available to us for a while but in the early 2000’s most people were afraid to express individuality through the very real fear of rejection.

But now, we know that standing up for what is right and self-expression do not lead to rejection. Because of our virtual networks, we know that there are communities of like minded people that will support and lift us up. And one way these groups build community is through sweet, funny, light-hearted, serious and counter-culture messaging. And I am so here for it.

Most of us grew up with the message that you need to conform and fit in so you won’t be left out, made fun of, or rejected by society! What we’ve learned is that attempting to conform or be someone we are not is painful, leads to fake friendships, bad relationships and doesn’t serve to better ourselves or society. We’ve come to learn that, even though scary at times (because the act of self-expression is counter-culture), sharing who we are inside feels SOOO GOOD!!! So, I love my pug Mugsy, and honestly more than some people - which I might never admit to someone, but I don’t have to! My trusty graphic t can do it for me. And in that there is this amazing freedom and liberation. And if someone doesn’t like it - it is my truth, which is difficult to argue with.

Through these phrases on graphic t’s we are seeing and finally sharing our humanness. Yes, that it is ok to be ourselves. For example, one of my favorite graphic-t’s from Wake-Slay-Repeat, says beach please. This is what you know about me - or at least I hope this is what is communicated about who I am. 

  1. I have a sense of humor
  2. I like a play on words
  3. I probably like the beach AND
  4. I can be impatient or easily irritated

These are all accurate statements about me - which is why I love it so much. Through something seemingly so simple, those of us who wear these are saying:

  1. We will no longer feel shame about character traits that are perceived as negative (for example: being impatient)
  2. And that we are going to own it and share it because
  3. It’s humorous, which we desperately need right now and
  4. It does what it has always done, bring people together.

Which at the root of our humanness, is what we desire most. Being connected and valued through community. So, go on with your bad-self in those graphic t’s.

Need some inspo? here are some of my personal favorites:

This company is awesome and they have some of the best captions - check out there shop HERE and you'll automatically get a Dr. Deb discount :) b/c I am low key obsessed with them. 


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