t-shirts : keep on ironin’

The t-shirt phenomenon……

Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com )

The unfortunate origins of the t-shirt in America begins with slavery. The tshirt was cheap easy field work clothing (light, breathable cotton, two shaped panels sewn together). In fact, the earliest recorded image applied to a tshirt seems to be the slave number stenciled onto the cotton tshirt. imagine that. The tshirt of today owes it’s origins to such a sad and inhumane past. But, that’s America for you, always making lemonade (large angry groan at stupid ‘candide’ joke).

Anyway, as the tshirt worked it’s way into our culture – first as slave wear, then as work wear, eventually as underwear and finally as high fashion statement – the one element that really was the driving force of the wearability and sustenance of the tshirt phenomena was the grapic ON THE FRONT of the shirt.

After the beginning with the vile slave identification number application, the tshirt quickly drifted into sportswear. It became just as easy to apply a team name and a team number as a slave number/id. So, slavery still exists in America in the symbolic form of organized sports? I guess that’s one way to look at it.

The military – the biggest sports team of all – quickly adapted the tshirt as well. First it was cheap underwear, Then it was as division identification. Very soon thereafter, you began to see the application of team mascot and insignia imagery. But it wasn’t very common until the advent of massive use during WW2. Again, it was the displaced war vet who really brought the illustrated tshirt into popular acceptance. When you joined a post-war sports team or biker club or street gang, suddenly the military system of identification was applied – it was all they knew. That’s how we got gang colors.

art chantry:that version of 'von dutch' - the clothing empire - has nothing to do with the original von dutch. the relatives of dutch sold the rights to his name and signature (the logo is actually dutch's signature) to a hustler to exploit. i imagine dutch is rolling over in his grave right now. maybe more like spinning like a top... so, all those folks wearing von dutch clothing actually are jerks.

About the same time this peacetime innovation of club insignia took hold, the custom car hotrodders were taking notice of the work of Von Dutch. He was innovating the rebirth of the art of pinstripping in a new crazy way. He was adding pinstrippping as a high expressive form, doing ‘fine art’ pieces on fast moving vehicles. It soon became known as “dutching” and was not only cool looking, it was considered good luck to be dutched by Dutch. It became a subcultural fad and status symbol.

as others began to copy his success (good money) Von Dutch stepped up his efforts and applied his pinstripping work to damn near anything, including his own wardrobe. This created interest in pin stripped (with an airbrush rather than a brush) clothing. The ideal canvass was the tshirt.

Von Dutch, being a painter as well (among so many other things) immediately began trying his hand at creating hot rod images on clothing. He had already been adding little mythical beasts and hot rod monster images in his pinstripping. Air brushing them onto tshirts was a logical step. soon, he couldn’t keep up with the demand.

The airbrushed monster on tshirt was Von Dutch’s innov

n. in effect it was the very first time anybody had actually applied full bore illustration/art to tshirts. Granted, team (and military division) insignia had been silkscreened to tshirts before, but Von Dutch was the first guy to use a blank white tshirt as a canvass for airbrushed original artwork. Later, Ed Roth took the obvious step of applying the mast-production technique of silkscreening those previously airbrushed monsters to tshirts to sell en masse.

As a result, every single tshirt sold in america literally owes a royalty to these two graphic innovators. One was a visionary artist pioneering a new medium. The other was a commercial hustling genius art directing an innovation for profit – the classic american success story. Too bad they didn’t bother to patent anything…

Since then, the tshirt has become as American as apple pie. Everybody in the entire world seems to have owned an illustrated tshirt at one time or another. No one is free of it. They are as ubiquitous as belly buttons. Think of all the tour tshirts alone. There must have been billions of them produced since the 1960′s. And the commercial shirt and the advertising shirts and the team shirts. It’s really an endless (and endlessly dismissed) medium.

So, where are these shirts now? One of the interesting things about tshirts is how recyclable they are. most old tshirts traditionally went into the rag picking business where they were torn up for commercially available cotton rags. Workers would carefully remove the back panels (sometimes several out of a single tshirt) and generally toss out the image area. Landfill. That’s why old tshirts – especially rock tour tshirts – have become such a big collector’s field. almost none of them survived.

Another innovation in tshirt technology first started to pop up during the 1960′s. It was called the ‘iron-on’ tshirt. It was a process of transferring a purchased image printed on a special wax-like paper and was sold via mail order and eventually tshirt iron-on shops. The basic premise that you could purchase the pre-printed design of your choice and then use your own iron to adhere the image to the tshirt of your choice (or sometimes the shop would iron it on for you). It proved so popular and profitable (no middle man, no silkscreen printing) that it almost entirely wiped out the old format silkscreen tshirt.

The images could be stupid (think happy faces, mushrooms, rainbows) or cool (like this image i reproduce – a generic monster image ala ed roth). Either way they were unavoidable. It became one of the style signifiers of the 1970′s – it’s most popular period. We now associate these natty plastic iron-on images with things like the Brady Bunch or disco queens. The iron-on materials (in order to prevent washout in the laundry and increase color intensity and other gimmicky production values like glitter) eventually became big flat plastic slabs glued to the chest of your shirt. You’d often sweat underneath them and in teenagers particularly, that meant pimples. so you’d get a zitty chest. ugh!

The one thing that iron-ons could NOT do was manufacture large runs. The iron-on technology still maintained that one-by-one personal approach that really couldn’t accommodate large editions in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Gradually, as the name brand again began to dominate our clothing decisions, the silkscreened image began to re-emerge as the dominant technology of the tshirt. Better profits, ya know?

So, today, the iron-on is almost extinct. The only thing that keeps it alive is the avid collector of period clothing (often rock clothing.) These collectors will even commission new editions of old designs and thereby inadvertently keep the iron-on technology alive.

The other bit of innovation (again) that keeps iron-on alive is the ‘home job’ tshirt. Basically it’s a process that allows you to print out iron on tshirts of your own choosing/design right on your home desktop printer. You simply a print it our, iron it on and viola! your own tshirt! it could be a pic of your dog or a drawing by your kid.

So, the iron on isn’t dead, it’s merely resting. I imagine some genius out there will start making some sort of image that can only properly be done with the iron-on technology and will start a fad that will (at least temporarily) make iron-on tshirts all the rage again. Myself? I can’t wait.


art chantry: i understand he used to regularly sit in with all those “cool jazz’ scenesters at their sessions in LA. apparently he was pretty good. the other musicians totally accepted his eccentricities as well. he was not particularly kind to anybody of any sort of “difference” (shall we say?) even tho, most of those musicians were of all sorts of different types and persuasions than dutch. he could get along when he wished.

he once did a commission for me that was so offensive to every racial/ethnic/religious/sexual persuasion that we couldn’t print it. the only thing the rocket actually couldn’t print. (well, on the cover, anyway. we did actually print inside as part of a column.)…actually, both the von dutch and ed hardy exploitation rackets are the work of the same huckster. he actually gives himself co-credit on the hardy packaging (but i can’t remember his name at this moment). if you ever see photos of that guy, it all becomes completely clear. he looks like a stereotype sleazy used car salesman on expensive dope. man, he’s a downright lousy looking guy.

so, he’s exploited both of these names. but, in don ed hardy’s case, (who is still alive) it was mutual. icky.

…well, i’ve run into the “slave” theory origin of the tshirt many times over the years – usually in interviews with “authorities” etc. the fact is that a slavery origin is bad for business. in fact, most of the stuff i write about here is bad for business and therefore open to subjective documentation. until i have a time machine and can check the reality of any of this out first hand (with a camera that can’t be tampered with in photoshop) i have to rely on what i’ve gathered and what makes sense. … it’s too bad that we take important stuff like tshirts, the coke bottle and oreo cookies for granted – like they grew on trees (academics lump it together and refer to it as “vernacular” – like there is no authorship, which isn’t true at all. it’s really lazy research.) trying to retrieve the authorship and give credit where credit is due is one of my design obsessions.

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2 Responses to t-shirts : keep on ironin’

  1. Casey Kepley says:

    This article is very interesting. It’s amazing that anything can be marketed in america and some of what is marketed can still be accepted even though people fail to realize the history behind some of the marketing.

    Good job on this article!

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