At Real Thread, we love t-shirts; the ones with band logos, the ones with corny phrases, even the ones with holes in the armpits from being so overworn. We’ll even admit to loving plain white tees (in a James-Dean-classic-cool kind of way *and* in a “Hey There Delilah”-is-the-best-song-ever-recorded kind of way).
Compiling this list was a fun exercise for us. We see a lot of really cool custom t-shirt designs come through our shop every day — and we're big believers that t-shirts have the power to rally people around them, unite groups, and create a kind of "inside-joke" experience between people who see the design and just "get it."
But what makes a t-shirt iconic enough to stand the test of time and become recognizable by the masses? How does a t-shirt become a cultural phenomenon? What does it take for a design to become the Angelina Jolie of t-shirts and be a household name, recognizable by 70-year-olds and 16-year-olds alike?
We're not entirely sure, but we think that the examples on this list speak to something about what our culture values. There's a little bit of irony, a little bit of humor, a little bit of nostalgia, a little bit of pride.
I'll say this much: you don’t have to love t-shirts as much as we do to recognize the shirts on this list. For many, just the description would be enough for even the most casual of t-shirt-wearers. But we’ll include pictures anyway, for the good of the order 😉
The 10 Most Iconic Tees — Like, Ever
1. Kiss Me, I’m Irish
If you're Irish, you would be lying if you told us you didn’t have this bright green eye-catcher in your closet right now. It definitely stays pushed into the back of your drawers until St. Patrick’s Day or until you have procrastinated your dirty laundry so long that you are forced to wear this tee in August. This shirt design is so popular that it's been duplicated by everything from other nationalities to teams to vaccination status. None have reached a level of recognizability to top their green predecessor; I guess “Kiss Me, I’m Vaccinated” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Fun Fact: My family is approximately 1% Irish, but my grandmother identifies very strongly with that side of her personality. As a result, she has gifted my siblings and I with multiple stylings of "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" shirts, and always sends decorations for St. Patty's Day, with a note that says "Don't forget, you're Irish, too!!" Okay, Nana.
2. I “Heart” NY
New York was able to turn the simplest of souvenirs into possibly the most well-known t-shirt design of all time. With its typewriter font and big red heart, this shirt feels nostalgic. Although traditionally worn by tourists, the slogan has transcended into the ironic space, being worn by both native New Yorkers and people who have never stepped foot in the city.
3. I’m With Stupid
You have seen this novelty t-shirt in at least one of its many forms. There have been renditions of the shirt made with a big arrow (like the example above) and others made that feature a pointing finger. Unlike some other iconic shirts on this list, this shirt has evolved into a set for two (with the other shirt reading “I’m Stupid”).
4. Keep Calm and Carry On
Although it was originally developed as 1930’s British World War II propaganda, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” design randomly shot to popularity in the 2000s. When used more recently, the second half of the slogan is usually edited: for example, “Keep Calm and Run On” for a track team or “Keep Calm and Game On” for a video game fanatic. This t-shirt design also features a small crown, which is usually changed, as well. A heart, a dog paw, a leaf - you name it, it’s been on this shirt.
5. The Rolling Stones
We could’ve included a lot of band tees on this list, but we think the tongue and lips logo for The Rolling Stones is definitely the most iconic. It’s fun, bright, and unmistakable. The extremely well-known band created a logo that is just as recognizable as their music (if not more so).
6. Vote For Pedro
After the 2004 hit Napoleon Dynamite, this shirt design had no trouble transitioning from the big screen to screen-print. Can I get a “heck yes!”? It was featured in the movie as a high-school campaign shirt for Napoleon's sweet sidekick character. Almost 20 years later, you can still see this shirt being worn out and about.
Okay, now I'm really craving some tots.
7. Jurassic Park / Ghostbusters
We decided to bundle these two together because they're both film franchises that sparked apparel trends. The fact that you could walk into a Target today and likely see one or both of these logos plastered on a shirt in their graphic tee section is proof of the fact that mid-80s to early-90s era film is peak nostalgia.
The Jurassic Park logo is so iconic that it even has its own name: Logosaurus. The logo was seen extensively in the 1993 film and allowed for easy t-shirt making outside of the movie. Even those who haven’t seen any of the films may still be big enough fans of the original book or the rides at Universal Studios to rep the franchise with this t-shirt.
Another representation from a movie universe, the Ghostbusters logo takes on a life of its own. The “No Ghosts” emblem references the movie’s namesake team while still being an objectively cool design. And, since more movies centered around/within the Ghostbusters universe continue to be released, this t-shirt design continues to be relevant.
8. Charlie Brown
If you didn’t grow up watching the Peanuts, then you may have seen this shirt before and thought nothing of it. The Charlie Brown shirt is perfectly simple, while also being completely unmistakable. Whether you wear it as a normal tee or a lazy Halloween costume, there is no question that Charlie Brown’s brown and yellow striped tee is as iconic as it gets.
Just like band tees, there is no shortage of superhero t-shirts in the world. However, compared to all the rest, the Superman t-shirt has to be the most iconic. The bright ‘S’ in the center of the chest is identical to the emblem Superman wears on his costume, making the wearer feel like the hero themself. If iconic t-shirts are your Kryptonite, then you definitely already own one of your own.
This one has become quite the hit in recent years, so much so that the LA Times even felt compelled to write a piece on how the NASA logo is having "a moment."
NASA is one of those unique (and increasingly rare) institutions that doesn't really have any haters. I mean, if there's one thing that unites all of humanity, it's a deep curiosity about space, the universe, and our place in it. It's why science fiction movies are generally box office smashes and the question of whether or not there is life on other planets is one of the most frequently debated. For this reason, it shouldn't necessarily be surprising to us that the NASA logo has become so pervasive in the apparel industry.
Design Your Own Iconic Custom T-Shirt
Ready to start designing an iconic custom tee of your own? We can help with that. Contact one of our printing pros today and we'll have you on your way to creating some head-turning, eye-catching conversation starters in no time.