The Wacky — and Lucrative — World of Vintage Concert Shirts
All photos by Chris Lane
Concert T-shirts have become one of the most popular forms of musical memorabilia around, and for many reasons. What better way for a fan to broadcast his or her love of a band than to wear a shirt emblazoned with the group's name and imagery?
This once-common Nirvana shirt can sell for several hundred dollars in collector circles now.
There's something cool about a concert shirt that surpasses that of other souvenirs from a show; unlike a tour program or other merch, tees have a very practical function. Many a friend of mine had a wardrobe composed primarily of band shirts they'd bought at concerts when we were teens, and as a gangly and awkward adolescent myself, I embraced the simple fashion statement that a black concert shirt made possible. Some of us might not have looked "good," exactly, but certainly better than we would have in the other clothes that were in style in the mid-'80s.
This vintage shirt for the Dwarves tends to raise eyebrows. The back says "Fuck you up and get high" and has the Sub Pop logo. Sure to have scared parents.
Concert shirts also make it possible for fans to identify each other. I still remember being a new kid in school after being transferred from across town, and having another kid start talking to me because I was wearing a Celtic Frost shirt. That guy is still a close friend of mine today.
This Slayer shirt from the late '80s may be my most valuable. I've seen other examples of it sell for as much as $1,300 on eBay.
According to online sources, the first real concert shirts were made in the late '50s by one of Elvis's fan clubs, but the concept really took off a decade later, when concert-promoter extraordinaire Bill Graham began producing promotional T-shirts for West Coast bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. By the 1970s, concert shirts were established as a popular type of band merchandise, although the designs from that period tended to be plain compared to those of the 1980s.
Concert shirts are definitely cool, but in the past, most people seemed to use them in the same way that most of us do other forms of clothing. We wore them until they were no longer wearable or had fallen out of fashion. Perhaps no other sign of a person's changing musical taste is clearer than when he discards a band's shirts when that person no longer likes that group.
Another valuable Slayer shirt from the '80s, and one that's often bootlegged.
Until a few years ago, I was largely ignorant of the fact that some people collected old concert shirts, but then I found a forgotten box full of them. My curiosity piqued, I ventured onto eBay to see if any of those shirts were worth selling online, or if I'd be better off just taking them to a thrift store. I was shocked to discover that the old '80s band shirts I had were routinely selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars, and the thrift-store option was quickly discarded.
A rare shirt from the punk band X, from a show at the Whiskey in 1987.
About that...never unload your old concert shirts at a thrift store! Unless you want to make someone else a lot of money, it's just a bad idea. Even shirts from bands most people think are lame probably still have value to collectors, even if it's just cheesy camp appeal. So yes, someone will probably give you a lot more money for that NSYNC shirt that's been gathering dust since 2000 than the local thrift store will.
A great early '90s shirt from L7.
Original concert shirts in good condition can fetch thousands of dollars in some cases. A person who still has an old Led Zeppelin or David Bowie shirt he or she bought at a concert in the '70s is sitting on a gold mine of sorts. Heavy metal and punk-rock tees from the 1980s can sell for hundreds of dollars or more, depending on what bands they feature and the condition they're in.
Nothing says "I saw them before they sucked" like a 25-year-old concert shirt.
Since these shirts are potentially worth a lot of money, anyone set on collecting them needs to learn some simple advice. For one thing, as with many other types of collectibles, it's pretty easy to make a fake "vintage concert shirt," and lots of people have done just that. Modern technology makes it simple to take a rare older shirt and duplicate it so that, to the untrained eye, it looks almost exactly like the real deal.
Older concert shirts were sized smaller than today's, so a size XL from the '80s is closer to a small "Large" today. That means that old XL-size tees are usually valued much higher than smaller sizes.
Fortunately for newbies to concert-shirt collecting, there are online forums and guides to teach people what's real and what's not. Important info, like identifying defunct shirt brands that were used for shirts in past decades, is compiled so a novice doesn't end up spending hundreds of dollars on a fake concert shirt. With bands and bootleggers reprinting old shirt designs these days, learning how to spot the differences between a true vintage shirt and one made yesterday with the same image on it is important.
Shirts from tours supporting seminal albums can command high prices, like this Slayer shirt from the "Reign in Blood" era.
Some dealers specialize in selling vintage concert shirts. Browsing their selections can be like stepping back in time, and can make a person regret cutting the sleeves off his old Metallica shirts in the '80s, before using them to wipe bird crap off of his car. People who buy from those sources certainly aren't getting a "deal," but they can have piece of mind that the shirts they're buying are authentic. The best way to collect is to do it now — when we go to shows, buying a shirt helps to support the artists we love, and in a few years that concert tee might also be valuable. Even if it's not, an old concert shirt is one of the coolest ways to show you enjoy a band and saw them live way back when.
Learning to spot old T-shirt labels that are no longer used is one way to try to authenticate a shirt from the '80s. Also, most shirts these days are 100 percent cotton, but back then they were often poly blends. Most were made in the U.S.A. too.
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