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Where Did the Graphic T-Shirt Come From? A Brief History

Posted on May 14 2021

You’d be hard-pressed to find a single person on the planet who doesn’t own at least one graphic t-shirt. The classic graphic tee is a staple in every person’s closet— after all, we all have our interests and general things that we’re such big fans of that we want the whole wide world to know about it. 

People wear their graphic t-shirts to school, concerts, on casual Fridays, at work— I mean, basically in any place or situation that you can think of. There are individuals who’ll wear an edgy graphic tee as the ultimate fashion statement, whereas others will wear a kitschy design in a fun ironic way. These shirts display our favorite bands, brands, and even soda cans. 

But how did this phenomenon of turning our pop-culture obsessions and food favorites into apparel come about? Read on to find out. 


The Early History of the Graphic Tee


First graphic t shirt wizard of oz


The Wizard of Oz and World War II

The first time the world saw a graphic t-shirt in the mainstream was in the 1939 classic movie The Wizard of Oz, in which the workers of Emerald City re-stuffed the scarecrow while wearing bright green tees that boldly displayed “OZ.”

In that same era, soldiers were sporting t-shirts that showed off the names of their specific training programs. After the second world war ended, former soldiers continued wearing these shirts in their everyday lives. This caught the attention of various members of the press, even landing their graphic-tee-wearing torsos onto magazine covers. 

However, t-shirts at this time were still seen as undershirts to keep warm, and not as stand-alone articles of clothing.



James deen look alike bad boy t shirts popularity



James Dean and Marlon Brando

Fast forward a bit to the 1950s, where dashing film stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando played the quintessential bad boy in movies like Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One. Their iconic bad boy characters helped transform the basic t-shirt into a timeless fashion piece. 

This was the same time in which emerged new ink innovations in the printing industry, which truly opened the door for the graphic t-shirt revolution in the following decade. 



graphic tshirts 60s 70s 80s 90s 00s 10s today now



The Revolutionary 60s and Beyond

The 60s represent a radical change that took place in the US and the entire world as a whole. Political and cultural revolutions were the themes of the decade, which percolated into everyday fashion.

Anti-war symbols and slogans, political statements, and messages of love were printed en masse on a variety of t-shirts; which propped the graphic t-shirt up as the ultimate statement to express one’s individuality and belief system. 

Rock bands— like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin— started printing their names and logos on t-shirts, prompting fans to buy and wear them out of loyalty. (It was a big trend to buy graphic tees that displayed a band’s tour dates to subtly boast about having attended their concert.)

Nowadays, the variety of imagery and sayings on graphic t-shirts has definitely widened to include everything and anything a person can think of. Plus, even if you can’t find it, you can always make it. There are companies out there that exist solely for custom printing, and that does indeed include the graphic tee of your dreams.