Vintage T-Shirts Shopping Guide: 2021

  We could argue that every living person owns a T-shirt.

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We could argue that every living person owns a T-shirt. It’s a piece that we often take for granted, but this fashion staple has a long and fascinating history—and a clear, bright future. Let’s dive in. 

Where It All Began

Every vintage T-shirt has a unique history tied to a different era and community. Old band T-shirts with holes or a soft, cozy T-shirt from the ‘70s each carry their own history and have their own story. T-shirts are a long-time fashion staple; so much so that they’re just so ingrained in our wardrobes, they become easy to overlook. 

The first T-shirts came from workers in the 19th century cutting their jumpsuits in half to keep cool in hotter seasons. The first manufactured T-shirt arrived in the early 1900s when the U.S. Navy began issuing them as the standard undershirt of their uniform. The word “T-shirt” itself wasn’t used until 1920.  

By the 1950s, the purpose of T-shirts began to expand. What began as an undershirt was popularized by the bad-boys of the ‘50s and ‘60s, namely Marlon Brando in a Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean in the infamous Rebel Without a Cause.

Because of this, the T-shirt became an apparel staple associated with rebellion, even though it previously would have only been used as an undershirt. In the 1960s, printing and design on T-shirts began, and by the 70s, T-shirts became the “medium of the message.” T-shirts were used to convey messages, ideas, and slogans. 

Now, T-shirts are a staple in any brand, any age, any gender, and any style. No matter who you are, there will be a space in your closet for a T-shirt. They are fluid and expressive, and though their history is relatively new, it is still extensive and rich. 

Let’s Talk T-Shirts

T-shirts are the one garment that just about every brand offers. From high-end designer brands selling a thousand dollar tee to multi-pack white tees at Walmart, T-shirts are everywhere. T-shirts aren’t going anywhere, but finding a vintage T-shirt that has been pre-loved, altered, modified, painted on, cut up, and re-put together will always be an enticing, interesting addition to your wardrobe.

What Makes the Perfect Vintage T-Shirt?

The perfect vintage T-shirt is ideally made up of a few components. They are the secret comforts of your wardrobe: the one you got from your parents or found at your local consignment store, that you sleep in, wear tucked-in, and find yourself always coming back to.

The great thing about a vintage T-shirt is that the design or text is what you make of it. It can be the main draw or an afterthought. At the end of the day, the vintage tee’s draw is something more intangible, woven into the fabric of its unique history. 

Graphic and Band T-shirts

Part of the charm of wearing an old band shirt is its history. Wearing an oversized band T-shirt tucked in or a cropped band T with high-waisted jeans is a chic, casual look that makes a statement about the music and eras you love. Here are the best tips for styling your band T-shirts that you can apply to any vintage tee—or ignore completely in favor of your own special look.

  • Don’t fear layering. When the weather gets cold, layering your band tee over a turtle neck or long-sleeved top is a great option for spicing up a comfortable fall or winter look. 
  • Tuck it in. When tucked in, a band tee can grunge up a feminine piece like a skirt or add an edge to a more structured look with trousers or a blazer. 
  • Pair it with plaid. Wearing your band tee with a plaid mini and chunky shoes will give you an ultra rocker-chic look. 
  • Go oversize. Don’t feel like you have to shop for a vintage tee the same way you might shop for a classic tee or undershirt. Go bigger (and bolder). Lean into the coziness and comfort. Though it’s a T-shirt, part of the iconic look of a graphic or band tee is its oversized nature. It’s not comparable to a more fitted traditional T-shirt; let this vintage option represent your individual style. 
  • Toss a loose jacket or duster over it. A bomber jacket or light duster will pair perfectly with a graphic, loose-fitting T-shirt. 

Finding the Perfect Vintage Tee

When searching for the perfect vintage tee, focus on the feel in addition to the design. For a vintage tee, the weirder, more kitschy, and more ironic the design, the more perfect the shirt. 

When searching for the perfect vintage T-shirt for your wardrobe, keep a few things in mind:


When you see a vintage T-shirt that says 50/50, it means the shirt is a cotton and polyester mixture. Tri-blend, on the other hand, refers to a mixture of polyester, cotton, and rayon.

Shirts that are newer are generally made as tri-blends, and shirts from the 1970s and earlier are usually a 50/50 blend. The 50/50 blend will typically be a bit thicker, as there is a higher amount of polyester contributing to the fabric. S tri-blend will feel lighter, as the rayon creates weightlessness.


The majority of vintage plain white tees fit tighter with a higher crewneck on the neckline, while V-necks of this era tend to have a wider and deeper fit. These were made to be undershirts, so the neckline wasn’t meant to be visible when layering.


Deadstock shirts are not uncommon on a vintage t-shirt hunt. A deadstock t-shirt describes a tee in a new or unworn condition that was purchased by a distributor and never sold. This is common with plain T-shirts, but not common with vintage graphic or band T-shirts. 

Iron-On vs. Screen Printed

Screen printing designs are created when you put ink through a mesh-like stencil. Because of this method, these types of shirts are generally one to two colors. Iron-on patches become stiff and crack over time and are usually letters, logos, or characters. 


A Ringer T is a type of T-shirt that has a different colored collar than the body of the shirt. This was particularly common in the ‘70s and gives a very all-star-track-champion vibe. 

Tubular or Circular Knit

This characteristic references the type of knit material your T-shirt is made from. A tubular shirt is made from a tube without seams while a circular shirt has side seams.



One thing to keep in mind when shopping for a vintage tee is that sizing has changed pretty drastically since the ‘70s. Instead of referencing the sizes of small, medium, and large, use measurements.

There is no universal sizing for vintage tees. For example, a size small from 1970 will be significantly smaller than a size small from 1990. A 100% cotton blend will shrink less than a material with polyester, but all t-shirts are subject to shrinkage.

Thrashed and Worn T-shirts

One great aspect of a vintage T-shirt is that the more worn it gets, the more of a story it tells. A vintage T-shirt goes through many stages from start to finish. The more holes it acquires, the more charm it has. No matter how worn a favorite T-shirt gets, it will still be your favorite T-shirt.

A thrashed vintage shirt can add a soft, grunge-like look to your wardrobe, but there comes a time where the vintage tee is completely unwearable due to damage. In that case, here are some ideas to upcycle your favorite tee for future use:

  • Cut off the sleeves
  • Make it cropped
  • Bleach dye it 

Fits to a T

Vintage T-shirts encapsulate so many styles and are a gateway into vintage fashion. They connect you to all sorts of styles and go with just about anything. A vintage tee will only become more and more worn and comfortable as it continues carrying your history. 

Shopping for vintage t-shirts has never been easier thanks to Thrilling. Our sustainable business practices and support of small, women- and BIPOC-owned businesses make every purchase an investment in our future as a planet, as a community, and as individuals with unique style. 


The Best Vintage Tees and How to Wear Them for Every Occasion | Vogue

Ways to Style Your Vintage T-Shirts That Aren't Worn Out |  The Fashion Spot

How to Style a Vintage Band T-shirt | Who What Wear

The History of the T-Shirt | Real Thread

The T‐Shirt Has Become the Medium for a Message (Published 1973) | NY Times

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