Down to a vintage tee: pulling on a piece of history

Priya Elan

In the new, rebooted TV version of High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s Rob, previously played by John Cusack, is a queer woman of colour played by Zoë Kravitz. The nerdish, music snobbery of the original novel prevails; alongside jokes about Creed and soliloquies about getting rid of Michael Jackson’s entire oeuvre, vintage music T-shirts are a battleground.

A Cheap Trick tee gets ridiculed, a Miseducation of Lauryn Hill one becomes shorthand for Rob’s co-worker’s tastes and ambitions, and an accidentally destroyed vintage Joy Division T-shirt becomes a metaphor for a toxic relationship. Rob herself mixes achingly cool girl grams (cardigans, DM boots, Matrix jackets) with Wu Tang Clan and Beastie Boys (License to III era) tops. Why those bands? “They’re both awesome and represent going your own way whether it’s deemed cool or not,” says the show’s costume designer Sarah Laux.

A vintage rock T-shirt obsessive herself (she’s been collecting them for 20 years), she sees the unspoken meaning behind the T-shirt: “They show a level of commitment to the history of music,” she says. “Rob is no different. Having a vintage T-shirt from a classic band is like having a piece of history.”

Wearable art: Zoë Kravitz in High Fidelity. Photograph: Phillip Caruso/Hulu

Similarly on HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae’s character, Issa, has an equally enviable wardrobe of vintage tees: Public Enemy, Nina Simone and Prince. In the show they are used both as an expression of the characters’ personalities and a narrative wink to what’s going on in the plot.

“Early on during the pilot process, we talked about Issa’s style feeling nostalgic,” says Ayanna James, the show’s costume designer. “I purchased a few vintage band tees for Issa to wear at the end of the first episode.” James wanted the show to have the T-shirts articulate what Issa was going through. “Specifically during season 2, I would plug in shirts that matched Issa’s mood.”

People want a feeling of belonging to a movement or an era

As well as being a fashion talking point, it’s also big business. Pre-loved T-shirts from Wu Tang or Backstreet Boys can go for £500 or more on resale sites. “There’s a lot of $1,500 band T-shirts out there,” Laux says. She’s seen a Sonic Youth T-shirt go for $2,000. “People are interested in having items of clothing that have lived a life and that are essentially one-of-a-kind pieces.”

In 2011, HMV started making extra space for their vintage tee selection, clocking the growing nostalgia market and that music fans would pick up a T-shirt, mug and possibly badge along with the commemorative reissue of their favourite album. “We were seeing a massive increase,” says chief buyer Gary Williamson. In a world lived through screens, there’s more value in the “nostalgia economy” where the connection to the past is of a high premium. Going analogue also plays out in a physical way. “I actually think that the vinyl renaissance is the older sibling of the current T-shirt trend,” says James Goodhead, co-founder of Unified Goods – a bespoke vintage T-shirt company. He says that the visual appeal of vintage T-shirts has a unique quality. “The way cotton and screen-printed graphics can age over the decades can be mesmerising – it really draws you in,” he says.

Vintage T-shirts from the 1970s and 80s feature a mix of polyester and cotton, they feel extra soft and will probably look a bit depleted due to age and having been washed lots. Cut to the 1990s and T-shirts were made in 100% cotton, they look a bit baggier and feel a bit more robust than their historical T-shirt cousins. “There’s a new level of detail that people are really investigating,” Goodhead says. Unlike other vintage fashion items, there is a place for the more “lived in” look; little imperfections can make the garment feel filled with personality. A cracked graphic or a cigarette hole in the arm – in the case of the vintage T-shirt it can feel like this look gives it personality rather than making it feel moth-eaten and not really resellable. It all ties into the tactile sense of physically connecting to another time and place, which is important.

“People want a feeling of belonging to a movement or an era,” says Goodhead. It’s something that Urban Outfitters think about when they consider which vintage T-shirts to stock. “We split them into stories based on what feels like a trend,” says Ruth Higginson, urban renewal buyer for the shop.

But it’s not just bands, it’s also brands who are seeing the value in cashing in on nostalgic fetishisation. The biggest sellers at Unified Goods are associated with 90s skater chic, 50s beat poetry icons and contemporary artists. “Most roads lead back to pivotal, subcultural happenings,” Goodhead says. The company curates the eras that they deem relevant: on their homepage are T-shirts featuring the 90s recycle symbol, Panasonic and Mawell T-shirts and a Phantom of the Opera tee.

Tees for two: Zoë Kravitz and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in High Fidelity. Photograph: Phillip Caruso/Hulu

Another consequence of social media is that the fashion cycles have sped up, so trends are coming up quickly and the idea of what “vintage” means has changed. Now when we use the term we’re not just using it in reference to a floral blouse that looks like it’s from the Second World War, we could be talking about a bucket hat from the 1990s or a boxy, shoulder-padded suit jacket from the 1980s. Goodhood recently launched a vintage T-shirt range which showcased old tech logos from Apple to the disintegrating Microsoft square.

Co-founder of Goodhood Kyle Stewart thinks that the products will resonate with “anyone who is aware of a brand’s current status and is misty-eyed for the simplicity of brands 20 years ago. The old branding of the vintage Apple products is relatively quaint compared to their contemporary appearance.”

More recently, Unified Goods have collaborated with the Tate Modern for the big Andy Warhol retrospective, providing vintage Warhol-related merchandise from the 1970s to the 1990s. What would the prince of pop art have made of the vintage T-shirt trend? “He would have loved it, for sure,” says Goodhead. “These T-shirts have almost become small works of collectible art.”