You are currently viewing What You Need to Know about the History of Graphic Tees

This post features the history of graphic Tees from the invention over who wore them and made them fashionable to today’s Must-Have for casual outfits.

    1. The Birth of the Graphic T-shirt
      • What Is the Origin of the Graphic T-shirt?
      • The Tee Made It on the Cover of a Magazine
    2. In the 1950s, this Formerly Underwear Became Mainstream
      • The Birth of the Slogan Tee
      • Paving the Way from Underwear to Casual Wear
    3. The Golden Age of Joined Ventures
      • Printing for Profit
    4. It’s a Material World
    5. Not in Fashion in the Zero Years
    6. Back to the History of Graphic Tees: Blank Canvas for Opinions and Fun
    7. Print-on Demand Became a New Retail Concept
    8. The Graphic T-shirt Is Back


Important note: Terms indicated with * are explained in the High Latitude Style Glossary.


The Birth of the graphic T-shirt

After the invention of the blank T-shirt, it took a while until the T-shirt transferred into a graphic tee. The possibilities to print art, words and photographs evolved over time. Today, T-shirts are a great medium for self-expression, sportswear as well as advertising.


What Is the Origin of the Graphic T-Shirt?

T-shirts provided a blank canvas that is suitable for promotion and slogans. The first printed shirt most likely was the one that promoted the movie Wizard of Oz in 1939.

However, the probably most known clothing item from this musical fairy tale are the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland who played Dorothy. In the 1900 book, Dorothy actually wore silver shoes.


The Tee Made It on the Cover of a Magazine

Well, it was the cover of the Rolling Stones. However, in 1942, the cover of Life magazine featured an Air Corps Gunnery School T-shirt. Hello college Tee! Often, there were competition for designing a college T-shirt.

The graphic T-shirts I chose to present in this post are college ones. The one in the next photos lists all the departments and groups of the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Natural Science and Mathematics arranged as the antlers of a caribou.


style blogger in seersuckers styled with a printed caribou motive Tee
Example of a College Tee


mature woman in summer pants, tee and sandals in all blue hues
Side view. Rolling up the sleeves of a Tee became a Do in the history of graphic Tees.


Fashionista in sandals, striped pants, top, sweater and saddle bag
Outfit details: Orvis seersucker pants, no brand sweater, Very Fine Dance Shoes sandals, LV saddle bag, silver metal belt, Hermes collier de chien bangle, three layer necklaces and college graphic T


The design of the Tee in the next photo was the winner of a student designing competition. It features the theory of the meteorological *conveyor-belt how air masses move in a mid latitude low pressure system on the northern hemisphere.

stylist featuring a college Tee with cardigan and jeans as part of the history of the graphic Tee
London Jeans BF jeans, Christian Louboutain pumps, Ethnic belt, college T-shirt with graphic print, cashmere cardigan, Festina watch, statement bangle, Ray Ban sunglasses and printed silk scarf



In the 1950s, this Formerly Underwear Became Mainstream

By the 1950s, several companies in Miami, Florida began printing on t-shirts for decoration. In the late 1950s, Tropix Togs got the original license to print Walt Disney characters.


The Birth of the Slogan Tee

In 1952, Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican presidential candidate, campaigned with the probably first-ever slogan t-shirt “Do it with Dewey.” He later helped Dwight D. Eisenhower in winning the Republican presidential nomination. Starting with Johnson-Goldwater presidential campaign, presidential races had mostly red and blue graphic T’s as badges of honor. With the next election coming up, we will see a wide variety of campaign slogan shirts soon.

Paving the Way from Underwear to Casual Wear

Countercultures and fashion groups influenced the print designs in the 1960’s. It didn’t matter whether it were the liberation of sex (e.g. In Germany, one of the “Sponti” slogans was “Wer zweimal mit derselben pennt, gehört schon zum Estabilishment.” Who sleeps twice with the same woman belongs already to the establishment), politics (e.g. the Kennedy Johnson 1960 presidential campaign or the peace logo), music bands, and even drugs! Remember the marijuana leave?


In its most pure form, it is the most democratic garment. – Northdruft about slogan Tees.


The trendsetters soon begun donning all kinds of graphics and the comfortable former underwear also conquered the adult world beyond freebies, college gear, and volunteers/supporters of politic campaigns.

However, it wasn’t before the 1970s that the graphic Tee went from being an It statement item to a daily wardrobe Must-have piece. This means it became as successful as outerwear than it was plain (blank) as underwear.


The Golden Age of Joined Ventures

Interestingly, it was the Punk and Rock’n Roll fashion and popular music bands that boosted the sales. These band logos were mostly print on black instead of white. The idea of branded merchandise flourished and provided a second passive income for the bands as well as free advertisement by their fans. Concert memorable tees made also extra income for the screen printing industry via the joined venture with the stars.

Remember the iconic tongue of the Rolling Stones? The “Who The Fuck Is Mick Jagger”? The Sex Pistols‘ “God Save the Queen” shirt? The 1982 Queen concert shirt featuring only Freddy Mercury or the entire Queen band in front of the Union Jack?

My fav band shirt so far is the one of Pink Floyd where the white light beam goes thru a prism and is split into all the colors of the rainbow. Originals of concert tour memorable sell very high on eBay. Read more on shopping on eBay.


Printing for Profit

By the 1960s, screen-printing became common, which made these joined ventures possible. The printing industry recognized the potential of profits from graphic tees. T-shirts were popular for self-expression, ads, protests, and souvenirs. Boys’ printed tees featured race cars, sports, spacecrafts, and action heroes. My niece and nephew loved the Batman logo.


It’s a Material World

In the 1980s, everything was about wearing the current It brand. The blank canvas showed designer and brand logos. Normcore. Remember the Guess, Puma, Nike, United Colors of Benneton, Fila, Boss, LaCoste, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Celine, etc. prints? Ironically, the original cheap top became a statement and expensive item. The combined material, craftsmanship plus print values didn’t hold up with the high price tags. The textile industry needed better quality control.

In the 1990s, the logos became less obvious, while the gap between t-shirt value and price increased. It seemed like an open pair of scissors. No wonder that such inflation of prices couldn’t hold long.


Not in Fashion in the Zero Years

At the end of the 1990s with the death of the Grunge, the comfy top took a back seat. Women wore Empire-style waist tops that comfortable hide a tummy, love-handles, hips or a big bum. Every woman looked like being pregnant for almost a decade! At the same time, men re-discovered the more dressy preppy style polo-shirts and Henley.

Nevertheless, the graphic tees still were sold for protest, support of political campaigns, and fundraisers (e.g., Heart Walk, Search for a Cure, etc.), or as souvenirs like “I was above the Arctic Circle” and funnies as well as advertisement for products, ideas or events like Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. The garment became cheap again, and easily went under a dollar per wear. They also became “lazy gals”‘ personal style.


Back to the History of Graphic Tees: Blank Canvas for Opinions and Fun

The slogans not only of the funnies often were very cynical. Just imagine a full-breasted woman wearing “Alaska Grown” right over her boobs!

My late Dad loved the funnies and I bought and sent several to him. They were just cheaper here in the US than in Germany despite of the postage. A funny that I never bought for him was “Sometimes I wake up grumpy, but sometimes a let her sleep.” My mom would have hate it and probably tossed the shirt. Note there was also the male version with “… let him sleep.”

The slogan that I found the most tasteless was “These ones are fake, my real ones wanted to kill me.” May be I am biased because my late grandma Hedi died of invasive breast cancer that went into her lungs. Also so many of my friends were diagnosed with breast cancer. I couldn’t imagine any of these women wearing that slogan. Nevertheless, I saw it on both Instagram and Pinterest. Wouldn’t a slogan


Ladies get your mammograms.


be as effective, be more tasteful and make more sense to remind women to get their annual mammography? Just a thought.


Print-on Demand Became a New Retail Concept

In the 2000s, the textile industry like Red Bubble adopted the “print-on-demand” concept. Now all kind of smaller influencers could offer their personalized top to their fans or use them for their campaigns. My hubby has one by Anne Bray (Spy Girl) that features me. Many artists and designers use mockups for creating clothes like graphic Tees.


The Graphic T-shirt Is Back

This comfy wardrobe staple is having a moment again. I hope you enjoyed reading the history of the graphic Tees. Read more on how to style a graphic T-shirt.


July Stylish Monday blogger presenting the modern way of the history of the graphic Tee
July Stylish Monday bloggers showing the modern way to style this Must-Have item. Suzanne Bell of Ask Suzanne Bell, Andrea Schwartz of Pearls and Pant Suits, Nancy of Nancy’s Fashion Style, Julie Augustyn of Fashion Trends and Friends, Emma Peach of Style Splash, Michele Clark of Seechele Styles, Nina Bandoni Sharing a Journey, and Cynthia Scurry Middle Sister Style.


Check their blogs for more views of their looks, prints and logos.


Photos of me: G. Kramm

© 2013-2023 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Who knew—-so much history on an undershirt! I like the “sarcasm” shirt—easy to read! 😀

  2. Anne M Bray

    Thanks for the mention!
    I think the Print on Demand concept started at State Fairs with heat transfers before it went digital.

  3. Julie Augustyn

    Loved learning about the history of the graphic tee!

  4. thestylesplash

    Interesting to read the history of the graphic tee. Very chic outfit!

    Emma xxx