From classic Seventies-era concert shirts to today’s inspired-by and embellished versions, rock ’n’ roll T-shirts continue to represent everything music fans think is cool.
As T-shirts go, the rock variety — those cotton basics promoting concert tours, screened with band iconography or simply declaring a music anthem (think “Sex and Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll”) — are in a category all their own.
The rock T-shirt’s enduring appeal has as much to do with its statement-making purpose as its egalitarian sensibility. It tells the world where on the radio dial you tune in. It cheaply, comfortably and by association lets the fan be nearer to her rock god. And it’s the ultimate concert souvenir. After all, you wouldn’t walk around with a ticket stub stuck to your chest. At least, not more than once.
“Everyone fantasizes about being a rock star. You can feel like one when you put on a T-shirt with some rock motif on it. There’s almost something liberating about it,” said Leslie Gardner, a former clothing designer for glam bands and video music stylist who helped pioneer the latest, endless wave of rock T-shirt obsession. Her Smashing Grandpa collection kicked off in 1995 with unauthorized images of Mick Jagger. Now emblazoned with only original artwork, the line sells everywhere from Patricia Fields to Bloomingdale’s.
Once considered disposable nostalgia, rock T-shirts have become fashion essentials. They are being reissued, bedazzled, slashed, converted into ruffled sundresses and appropriated (remember Dolce & Gabbana’s revived homages to Madonna last year?). Even babies have their own: there are miniature versions for the mommy-and-me set.
At Los Angeles vintage resource Catwalk, an original “Anarchy in the UK” shirt peeks out of a tweed Chanel jacket, which is paired with a matching tweed pencil skirt, fishnets and spectator pumps.
“Everybody has three major pieces of clothing in their wardrobe: sneakers, jeans and a cool rock ’n’ roll T-shirt,” said Catwalk owners Michelle Webb and Renee Johnston. The pair found the perfect punk T-shirts for Angelina Jolie, and for Kelly Lynch, a David Bowie one, among other shirts. Claire Danes and Dave Navarro have opted for the newer, artful renditions sold at Catwalk by designer Annalisa, who cuts up old shirts and then appliqués, handstitches and studs the pieces onto new black shirts (her Bowie Aladdin Sane style retails at $395).
From Smashing Grandpa’s original styles to the Ramones logo repros at Urban Outfitters, nowhere is the cult of rock Ts observed more religiously than at Lo-Fi in Los Angeles, where hundreds of used artist and concert shirts are presented on heavy wooden hangers or folded neatly in colorful stacks. Two turntables sit nestled in the sales counter near the register, at which owners Gary Wagner and Kelly Cole spin much of the vinyl they blast at Hollywood nightclubs as DJs.
Lo-Fi places a premium price on threadbare memories. Gina Gershon and Winona Ryder (who’s offloaded some of her own at Lo-Fi) and a legion of top stylists know it’s the place to score the look of well-worn authenticity. Some rock T-shirts start at $65, yet most run from $150 to 10 times as much. The holy grail of rock T-shirts? Something belonging to a roadie touring with Elvis or the Beatles in the early Sixties. Not that anyone has seen such a shirt. But considering the hefty prices of, say, the Led Zepplin Tour 1973 number at Lo-Fi tagged at $1,000 or the $3,000 1977 Never Mind the Bullocks original at Catwalk, it stands to reason that a collector will pay a most unreasonable price for the score.
“I grew up in Indianapolis, where the next day after a show, kids in school would be wearing the shirts as their badge of being there. I knew guys whose whole wardrobe were these amazing rock T-shirts and Levi’s,” recalled Cole, who will be opening a second Lo-Fi this fall a few miles east in Larchmont Village and a third next spring in New York.
“[Vintage] rock T-shirts carry the heart and soul of the people who wore them,” added Catwalk’s Webb and Johnston. “You wonder who they were, what concerts they went to, who they were slamming to at CBGBs. There’s a certain satisfaction knowing they’ve been worn and now it’s your responsibility to carry it on.”