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Charting the evolution of music T-shirts

From Vivienne Westwood to Wes Lang, discover how the humble T-shirt has been at the forefront of musical innovation.
By Holly Connelly
Published on
Music T-shirts might have been around since the ‘60s, but they’ve proved enduringly popular both as memorabilia and must-have fashion items. As documents of music history, they can hold unique value – like the Led Zeppelin 1979 Knebworth gig T-shirt which sold to an anonymous Australian buyer for $10,000 USD in 2011. Time and time again, music T-shirts have come to the forefront of fashion – from Vivienne Westwood’s creations to those of Kanye West. Here we look at some of the producers, designers and musicians who’ve been pivotal in the evolution of the music T-shirt.
Leading the way with the first music merchandise T-shirt
Winterland Productions

Winterland Productions (1968)

This is where it all began. Co-founded by astute producer and promoter Bill Graham, Winterland Productions can lay claim to being the first music T-shirt manufacturing company. The project was an offshoot of San Francisco’s Winterland Arena, which was a music venue run by Graham that saw performances from Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin (to name a few). This operation produced T-shirts for bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, who Graham was promoting at the time. Think of it as the birthplace of the music tee.
T-shirts go punk with designs by Vivienne Westwood
Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood (1974-76)

It’s near impossible to talk about music and fashion without mentioning Vivienne Westwood. Her designs, which were stocked at her and then-boyfriend Malcolm McLaren’s Sex (later renamed Seditionaries) boutique, defined the punk movement. Describing itself as ‘rubber wear for the office’, Sex sold all manner of clothes, but some of its most infamous products were T-shirts. Among the most memorable were the Destroy T-shirt, which used a swastika, and another which featured two naked cowboys. Though Westwood didn’t design Johnny Rotten’s I Hate Pink Floyd T-shirt, it has the same hallmarks as her best work: taboo-breaking, provocative and explicit.
T-shirts get political with designs by Katharine Hamnett
Katharine Hamnett

Katharine Hamnett (1983)

You might not recognise the name Katherine Hamnett, but you may recall the photo of her meeting Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street in a 58% Don’t Want Pershing T-shirt. Hamnett launched her range of slogan T-shirts in 1983 and they quickly took off; their directly political messages like Stay Alive in 85, Peace and Ban Pollution suited the zeitgeist of the ‘80s. The tees were picked up by musicians; George Michael wore a Choose Life version in Wham!’s video for Wake Me Up Before you Go Go; while Paul Morley, the brains behind Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s famous Frankie Say... T-shirts, based his design on Hamnett’s.
Hip-hop gets in on the act with designs by Cey Adams
Cey Adams

Cey Adams (1985)

From Naughty Gear to Billionaire’s Boys Club to Wu Wear, hip-hop has long been associated with clothing lines. Unlike rock concert T-shirts though, hip-hop tees tended to be produced in limited quantities, leading to some incredibly rare promotional, bootleg and elusive concert tees. For a deep-dive, check out DJ Ross One’s Rap Tees book which presents 500 of the rarest garms out there and also serves as a visual chronology of hip-hop’s evolution. But there’s no better place to start than with hip-hop design legend Cey Adams, creative director of Def Jam records and a contemporary of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, who, amongst other things, created the now-ubiquitous Run-DMC tees.
Paying homage to music's finest artists with designs by Supreme.

Supreme (2005)

Supreme has been involved in near countless music collabs. The streetwear brand has created T-shirts in tribute to Curtis Mayfield, Lou Reed, The Supremes, Public Enemy and many more. One of their best collections was working with Peter Saville to release T-shirt editions of iconic Factory Records cover sleeves including Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and New Order’s Blue Monday. This resurrection of a late ‘70s/early ‘80s aesthetic ties in to the broader popularisation of band T-shirts in fashion, which peaked as the 2010s rolled in; Joy Division, Sonic Youth, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Nirvana T-shirts were everywhere.
Mashing up musical influences with designs by Wes Lang.
Wes Lang

Wes Lang (2013)

Lang is the man behind the much talked-about skeleton emblazoned T-shirts for Kanye West’s 2013 Yeezus tour. The New Jersey-born, California-based artist is no stranger to making merchandise, he created the artwork for The Grateful Dead’s Spring 1990 box set. One of Lang’s signatures is repurposing other artists’ work and, true to form, these T-shirts are clearly influenced by classic ‘80s metal T-shirts, like those of Metallica and Iron Maiden. The tees were controversial for their use of the Confederate flag, and for the fact that they later went on sale in the PacSun store, which many saw as at odds with the point of gig merchandise.