Graphic T-shirts have become such a part of everyone’s wardrobe style that it’s hard to imagine that only recently cool Ts have become fashionable. Until the middle of the 1990s T-shirts were casual, often times doubling as their original use, which was underwear. Men, in particular, were—and still are to some extent—comfortable with this format. We wore T-shirts in the evenings at home or on Saturdays when we were working on home stuff or hanging out with our friends. T-shirts were for the times when you didn’t care what you looked like.
Graphic T-shirts have become such a part of everyone’s wardrobe style that it’s hard to imagine that only recently cool Ts have become fashionable. Until the middle of the 1990s T-shirts were casual, often times doubling as their original use, which was underwear. Men, in particular, were—and still are to some extent—comfortable with this format. We wore T-shirts in the evenings at home or on Saturdays when we were working on home stuff or hanging out with our friends. T-shirts were for the times when you didn’t care what you looked like. You didn’t wear a T-shirt to a restaurant, the office, or to other formal occasions because they weren’t dressy enough. Anyone who broke these informal rules would be considered unfashionable.
The type and style of graphics used to imprint T-shirts and how they’ve evolved since the early 1970s when T-shirts became items of mass merchandise, tell a similar story.
Graphic elements were simple, mostly sports or collegiate in origin and style. The music industry also played a part with the T-shirt as show merchandise blossomed from humble beginnings with vendors following bands like the Grateful Dead from show to show, to a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Nowadays, aspiring and successful bands alike sign separate contracts for the music and the merchandise with the latter oftentimes worth more. Even so, guys who bought shirts at concerts or who liked to wear their favorite team’s logo still weren’t likely to wear them outside of the social contexts mentioned above. T-shirts were still casual garments and were treated as such.
Looking at the variety of inks and application methods available in the early years, it’s easy to see that there were slim pickings. In the 1970s, aside from flat plastisol prints, you could have puff inks. The real variety came later when the T-shirt crossed over to fashion. Then it became not only OK, but essential for print and merchandising companies to invest time and money in researching garment print applications (Figure 1).
Even so, the targeted market was younger. It was fine for teenagers or college-aged men to wear imprinted T-shirts socially, but once you grew up they became casual wear again. Stylistically, the graphic elements were still simpler. The ability of print companies to produce multicolor prints in the large volumes that we are accustomed to today was still in its infancy.
A number of converging factors caused all of this to begin to change in the 1980s—technological advances in automatic presses allowed machines to print faster, and developments in ink manufacturing are some of these changes. The growth of the NFL, the NBA, and other sporting organizations and the mass-merchandising entities that they spawned are another. A third element was the advent of the private-label retail chains and their ability to sell merchandise at a discount.
There are always people in any social group who buck the norm. The idea of someone printing their own design on a T-shirt either to make a political or artistic statement is certainly not new. In fact, at one time the easiest way to decorate a T-shirt most likely was to do it yourself, by hand. There wasn’t much of a stylistic variance as far as design simply because existing technology was limiting. Before Photoshop, color separations were done by hand, and a lot of the printing would have been done by hand also. The automatic machines did not move very fast by today’s standards.
Things were pretty conservative—smaller production numbers, more localized markets, and the graphic elements would correspond to that. Mainstream guys wore shirts with sports or beer logos, or simple graphics and slogans, sometimes political, sometimes not. As we mentioned earlier, puff inks were about the only things available that were close to what we would call a special effect today. There are other types of blowing agents available now that weren’t available in the 1970s, but for a standard puff, the print-application parameters haven’t changed. If it’s a puff additive, add 10-20% to the ink, print it through a 110-thread/in. mesh, cure it, and you’re good to go. If it’s a base, tint it with color and use the same mesh. You had either a logo or a character puffed with an outline that was flat.
With the trend towards vintage in all things in recent years, we need to only to take a look at the graphic elements of some of these T-shirts on sale in the stores today to remind us that it was pretty basic. We’re emulating what came before, specifically with the graphic elements. Most of the vintage T-shirts that I’ve seen combine cracked or distressed images of old logos, beer labels, or slogans with variations on small business names thrown in. One of the ironies of this trend has been that we’ve had to invent new inks to mimic the effects that 20 years of washing has had on the old ones.
The original lead-based plastisol gradually cracks over the years. Some of it may peel off little by little. In some cases there’s a residue left behind, a faint image of the original, almost like a soft hand. We’re talking hundreds of washes here. Then the lead was banned, followed by some of the more widely used phthalates. It now looks more and more likely that PVC will go the same way. So now we have to engineer an ink that will crack after curing and leave a little residue behind just like it has been washed 100 times. This type of look is achieved in a variety of ways. Discharge inks or plastisol reducers are used for a soft hand and faded color. There are also inks that will crack after curing, both in plastisol and water-base formulations. A heavier deposit of ink usually is required along with a higher cure temperature and time for the cracking inks to be effective.
The irony doesn’t end with the inks. The fabric of newly made T-shirts doesn’t look old or faded, so they need to be altered to fit the vintage look as well. There are several wash options to achieve a vintage or washed-out effect for garments. Vintage, enzyme, and the well-known stone wash are some methods. In other cases, the collars and cuffs are sanded to fray them for more authenticity.
Music affects fashion
Why go to all of these lengths to reproduce the look and feel of a garment that was produced 30-40 years ago? The short answer is because it has become fashionable. A change occurred in attitudes toward the T-shirt and its relation to dress during the growth of mass consumer culture. Think of the Hilfiger brand. In the early 1990s, Hilfiger became almost ubiquitous in the apparel world when African American teenagers everywhere took to wearing the signature logo en masse. They were emulating the famous hip hop artists of the time who publicly wore Hilfiger’s clothes. The broad appeal of hip hop culture ensured that that particular fashion style would cross over into the mainstream.
Hilfiger wasn’t the only one, of course. Other private retailers like The Gap, Levi’s, and Calvin Klein all moved in the same direction. Call it a cultural convergence. Fashion, music, sports, and entertainment all became synonymous as far as marketing merchandise was concerned. Sports stars, rock stars, fashion, movie, and TV celebrities—whether qualified or not—all began to have a pervasive influence on what we wore. For teenage boys and young men who came of age during this time and after, the T-shirt was different. It became the signboard that directed people as to what group you belonged to or what your opinions were. This didn’t just apply to the type or cut of garment that you wore, but also to what was printed on it.
At first, the graphics were as basic as before: logo driven and uniform. Front, back, and sleeve prints only with very little derivation from this. Corresponding developments in ink and machine technology began to open up manifold print-application possibilities at the same time. As far as machines go, the impetus would naturally be to make them print more colors faster and break down less—and this is, for the most part, the advancement that has occurred. At the same time, a burst of ink technology brought gels, metallics and glitters, adhesives, high-density, and texturing inks.
Print and merchandising companies could vie for the huge contracts offered by Hilfiger or Target, etc., by giving added value to the garment through the print application. Thus, special-effects printing was born.
Because the initial instigators of R&D in print applications at the time were the private-label retailers and apparel divisions of companies like Nike, the new printing techniques were heavily centered around the logos at first. The same rules applied to print placement as before: front, back, and sleeve. The astute marketing of some of the above-mentioned companies of wearing their brand as a lifestyle choice brought the imprinted garment into the fashion world. To a new generation of men, printed shirts gained the same stature as dress shirts. The type and style of the graphic elements began to diversify also. Most guys didn’t wear glitter prints, hardly ever foil, and never sequins or rhinestones—but gels and high density, as well as other textured prints and some metallics, were perfectly acceptable.
The uniformity of the logo-driven print applications ran out of steam and a marked shift came right after the turn of the millennium. An emphasis on individuality and less on conformity took root and a look at how T-shirt graphics and styles changed reflects this. The artwork, inspired by the prevailing street-art movements, loosened up and became more original. The graphic elements literally seemed to come apart as more and more of the prints became abstract with multiple colors and disconnected art pieces (Figure 2). Designs of this type require little print engineering as far as set up and registration is concerned, but they allow for more creativity with the print application in the sense that simple three- or four-color designer prints mean that printers have more open screen heads to develop special effects using inks.
From tattoos to shirts
The iconography of the counterculture went mainstream almost as if it was born to. Body piercing and tattooing have become acceptable rites of passage for men and women. In men’s T-shirt graphics, the embellishment art mimicked tattoo art. The prints themselves, like tattoos, began to migrate all over the body (Figure 3). The front, back, and sleeve placements now began to include wrap, back top or bottom, front side top or bottom, and many others. Men wore their T-shirt prints like tattoos with the print on the shirt landing on the same part of the body as the actual tattoo. A good argument could be made that among some demographics the tattoo print on the T-shirt is worn in place of the tattoo on the body.
For men who grew up in the 1990s, a T-shirt imprinted with an original graphic is a fashionable garment that can, for the most part, be worn anywhere (black-tie occasions being a good exception). Even the print applications, like foils and rhinestones, that were once considered too feminine for menswear have made a huge crossover (Figure 4). Among young men in particular, oversized prints that include foil and another application, like a rhinestone or a stud, have been very prevalent for the last couple of years. Prints that are off-center or off-kilter are the norm (Figure 5), and foils and tattoo art have made an impression even among older men’s T-shirt graphics. It’s not unusual to see a dad in his 40s wearing a T-shirt with a graphic that’s only slightly less stylized than the one his son in his 20s is wearing.
Decorative elements and the notions of what types garments are acceptable to decorate have evolved. For the longest time, imprinted apparel meant T-shirts, sweatshirts, and sportswear. This covered a lot of different types of garments, from cotton jersey tees to 100% polyester or blended athletic garments to school uniforms. The graphical elements used on the sports or school garments are straightforward enough to detail school or team names and logos, sponsors, etc. Where T-shirts are concerned, there have always been more options available from a graphic standpoint, but printing outside of these garment guidelines wasn’t done. Who would have considered printing a graphic design on a dress shirt even if was going to be worn casually? Or a blazer for that matter?
That’s exactly what happened. In younger men in particular, the same street and tattoo graphics have moved out from the T-shirt to the dress shirt (Figure 6). Everywhere now the same street-art style is showing up on collared button shirts and with embellishments like flock and foil. This has been the trend for some time now, and who’s to say where it will go as these men get older.
The growth of direct-to-garment digital printing is a development worth noting in printed apparel. It’s changing the way that screen printers view printed-apparel applications. The movement of the prints themselves outward from the T-shirt to the shirt to the jacket also changes the way that screen printers view the same print applications. As long as the trend toward wearing designs continues in the vein that it is, it should lead to some very interesting innovations.
Ed Branigan is the print products applications manager for California-based International Coatings, engaging in product development, marketing support, and conducting workshops and seminars. He has spent 25 years in the screen and graphics printing industries both in Europe and the U.S. He has served as director of R&D for several large screen printing and merchandising companies on the West Coast.
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