The (Wildly Thrilling & Surprising) History of the Graphic Tee
T-Shirt Trends
min read

The (Wildly Thrilling & Surprising) History of the Graphic Tee

From Hollywood to household closets—the equally famous & *infamous* graphic tee gets around.

There are some things in life that are so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine a time without them. For example: good luck convincing us that cave people didn’t use Scotch Tape, and that passengers on the Mayflower weren’t decorating their quarters using Command Hooks! Despite their ubiquity, however, these household objects weren’t always around — and there’s a history behind each of them. 

But Real Thread isn’t in the tape or adhesive hook business, so we won’t be diving into those histories. We consider ourselves your expert source on all things custom t-shirts—so instead, we’re taking a closer look at a closet staple so familiar that 80% of Americans say they have “an attachment to theirs.”

If you’re one of those four-in-five, you’ll have guessed by now that we’re talking about graphic tees. (If you want to learn more about the OG, check out our blog post on the history of the t-shirt itself!) 

Equal parts wardrobe stable and personality piece, the graphic tee is an article of clothing near and dear to the hearts of so many — and its storied history is one worth delving into. 

A Hollywood Origin Story

Like the t-shirt before it, the graphic t’s origin story includes a stint in the military, but not before making its grand debut on the silver screen. Whereas many celebrated actors get their start in local productions or commercials, the graphic t was born to be a star — appearing on the backs of scarecrow-repairing minions in the iconic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The green tees emblazoned with “OZ” in big, white letters are the first known instance of the graphic tee as we know it today, and man do we wish we could get our hands on one of those things. Seriously, if you have a lead, please hit us up! 

Tees Worth Fighting For

Following in the footsteps of Paul Newman, Morgan Freeman, Adam Driver, and the many other Hollywood actors who have spent time in the military, the graphic t’s next starring role saw it wear military branches with pride. This time in the service would lead to the graphic t’s readjustment to civilian life, as veterans paid homage to their respective military branches through the graphic tees they wore on their backs. Yes, decades before there was Old Navy, vets were proudly wearing their old Navy graphic t-shirts. 

The Warhol Effect 

While the graphic t-shirt had done a lot in its first 20 years (how many of us can list appearances on the silver screen and military service on a resume at any age?) things were just getting started for the garment. With the acquisition of Disney’s licensing rights, the now-defunct Tropix Togs slapped Mickey Mouse on the t-shirt for the first time ever — but it wasn’t until Andy Warhol’s mastery of silk-screen technology that the graphic tee went fully supersonic. The pop artist consumed and offered commentary on popular culture, but his impact on the graphic t-shirt just might have shaped it, too. 

From the ‘Stones to Social Justice

Time (and the reign of Warhol) passed, but the graphic t-shirt was here to stay. But by the 1970s, the graphic tee had long grown out of its Mickey Mouse adornments — and fully embraced rock and roll. Artist John Pasche’s famous “Lips” design for The Rolling Stones was as if it was made to be printed on graphic t-shirts, and it soon became the first way for fans to say “yeah, I liked the band before they were cool.” With this, the graphic t-shirt was not only a means of expressing taste and personality, but also a full-blown fashion statement. But, as the graphic t-shirt would soon prove, it could be so much more.

The 70s, despite being the “peace and love” era, saw its fair share of conflict — and the graphic tee returned to its public service post. This time, however, it served as a walking billboard for the anti-war movement. Vietnam was far from the only hot-button issue of this era, and as the New York Times put it: The graphic t-shirt had become “a blank canvas that associates you with a specific movement.” 

The Graphic Tee Gets Fashionable

Though graphic tees had covered the backs of humans for over 50 years, it wasn’t until the 90s that they were fully embraced by the high fashion crowd. Cool Girls™ Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood arguably made the graphic tee a bonafide fashion statement, but once labels like Gucci and Cristian Dior figured out they could slap their logo on the once-working class garment the fashion graphic tee as we know it was born. Kering (the parent company of Gucci) earned $20 billion in revenue in 2021, and we’re willing to bet a good chunk of that is owed to the graphic t-shirt. 

Make Graphic Tee History with Real Thread

Today, the graphic tee can be a fashion statement or a taste signifier; a club membership card or a voice for the voiceless. One thing is for certain: Even as the graphic tee approaches its 100th birthday, the iconic garment is more popular than ever — and there’s plenty more history to be made. 

Whether you’re looking to spread a message, rep your brand, or foster camaraderie among team members, custom graphic tees from Real Thread are a great way to do so. 

So, are you ready to make graphic tee history? Drop us a line, and Real Thread’s team of graphic tee gurus would be glad to help bring your creation to life. 
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