Attack of the killer Ts

Pub date March 19, 2007


"Ironic T-shirts — where the lameness of my T-shirt is in inverse proportion to my hipness!" comedian Patton Oswalt shouted at a recent sold-out Noise Pop show, pointing out in particular one special Salinas lass in a skull-and-hearts T. "I’m so cool I can defeat my own T-shirt!"

You know T-shirts have arrived — and by now may even be taking the last BART train to Fremont — when they’ve crept into the routines of comics desperate to warm up a 6 p.m. crowd. Is there anything more appropriate for every occasion, barring the most obscenely uptight cotillion? Be it basic formal and fiendish black, all-purpose "what are you rebelling against?" white, or any hue in the spectrum between. Be it worn on the chest, sleeve, or belly. Be it decorated with words and pictures so promo, pomo, and porno, with bands and teams, mugs and slugs of the sheer truth, alliances and affiliations, affirmations or fighting words — there’s no place like the homely T-shirt. Provided you have the right cut, cult, or message, you can throw it on and rock that bod with just jeans and trendoid footwear — consider yourself done.

Ts are our wearable tabula rasa, once underwear suitable only for soldier boys circa World War II, later campus and business iron-on throwaways in the ’50s, and even later rock band promos ready to be gracefully defaced with pins and zippers during the punk years (and now we’re back to white Ts for gangstas dodging crippling colors). Remember when the only T-shirt sizes available were L and XL? Remember when the sole women’s Ts around were toddler ready, fit for showing off every chub roll acquired from here to the nearest bakery? Whether you break them down between screen prints and iron-ons or between skate-beach-BMX, rock–metal–punk–pop–hip-hop, and TV-film-cartoon-advertising specimens, as Lisa Kidner and Sam Knee do in their 2006 book, Vintage T-Shirts (Collins Design, $19.95) — there’s an unsnooty, democratic beauty to a T.

Long after those faux–feed store and John Deere–logoed T-shirts have evaporated and aeons after the not-so-ironically offensive faux-Asian biz T-shirts have been yanked from Abercrombie and Fitch, we can still fall for a few artfully decorated scraps of tissue-thin jersey — and not just those by newbie local hotshot T designers such as Turk+Taylor ( or My Trick Pony ( Only a few months ago I was bewitched into purchasing a $9 Flying V–bedecked shirt with a factory-frayed neck and sleeves at Le Target, of all places — the ideal block-rockin’ New Year’s Eve outfit with a black chiffon tiered skirt and boots. Why did I fall? It never fails to get compliments and fits like a teenage dream, and I can always make room for another music T in my collection, which encompasses an ’80s Sex Pistols reproduction purchased from the back pages of Creem, a boxy Poison pachyderm rewarded after a gig loading out for the hair metal combo, and a Scottish-slurred "Where am I and what the fuck’s going on?" Arab Strap T.

Lucky us, living at ground zero of the rock-T explosion: in 1968, the late Bill Graham began printing shirts regularly for the first time, an effort that distinguished him from fan club and individual band merchandising designs, according to Erica Easley, who cowrote Rock Tease: The Golden Years of Rock T-Shirts (Abrams Image, $19.95). Bill Graham Presents still sells vintage articles and reproductions on its Wolfgang’s Vault site (, though if you want the real thing, you might have to settle for the Doobie Brothers and Exodus rather than the Stones and Hendrix.

A buyer for one of the largest buy-sell-trade clothing stores on the West Coast, Red Light Clothing Exchange in Portland, Ore., Easley can pinpoint the beginning of the recent rock-T trend to the late ’90s when designers began buying vintage shirts and modifying them with grommets, trim, and patchwork. "They were able to do that because they were so cheap," she explains, citing Lara Flynn Boyle as one of the first celebs to sport a T (Bob Seger) on the red carpet, and attributes the longevity and cultural relevance of the rock-T trend to the resurgence of new bands such as the White Stripes.

American Apparel’s sexy softcore ads and no-logo trendy styling haven’t hurt either, while street artists have taken to embellishing Ts as they might a skateboard, and fashionistas continue to layer short-sleeve with long-sleeve Ts in what Easley calls the "Spicoli surfer look." To her eye, the urban art trend "raises all sorts of sociological questions. It’s from the street and supposedly authentic and tends to be pricey — it’s not what a street rat can really afford. There’s the price of a shirt and who’s wearing it and who’s supposed to be wearing it — you’re buying into a lifestyle." Personally, she’d "love to see a resurgence of do-it-yourself T-shirts, writing on T-shirts making personal statements."

Easley confesses the overall rock-T trend is waning. "It was such a fashion fad and so oversaturated. The sense of exclusivity that made it really hard at any other part of this decade to find T-shirts is gone," says the writer, who got into collecting by way of a Mötley Crüe obsession. "But I think long term it has been great for rock T-shirts and put them into the collectible realm."

Steven Scott, the manager of Aardvark’s Odd Ark (1501 Haight, SF; 415-621-3141), agrees that the trend for music Ts seems to be ebbing, while morphing from a ’70s to an ’80s focus. The store’s personal best: a Michael Jackson "Thriller" T, which sold for $125. "You can’t get that for it now," Scott says. "But [the appeal] is like San Francisco rents — they never go down, and landlords keep hoping people will come back."


When shopping for a vintage T — or really any T — Rock Tease coauthor Erica Easley says, "It’s all about the image. I don’t care about the band, even though I’m always excited about a good Alice Cooper T. It’s all about a strong image, colors, and, personally, a shirt where I don’t have a sense of computer-generated graphics."

When looking for oldies, do, however, beware of fakes. "The colors won’t be correct, the green is too bright, or the cut wasn’t being produced at that point," Easley warns.


Ringers, jerseys, worn-soft garb adorned with Firesign radios and corny sayings: Aardvark’s re-creates the thrifter’s thrill of discovery with a jam-packed rack of oldies.

1501 Haight, SF. (415) 621-3141


The most fashion-conscious print-free Ts around, regardless of how you feel about the jailbaity marketing campaigns. Gotta love me some blouson and dress-length styles.

2174 Union, SF. (415) 440-3220; 1615 Haight, SF. (415) 431-4028; 2301 Telegraph, Berk. (510) 981-1641.


Customize your own cool: this international chain provides the iron-ons, puffy wood-panel lettering, and brightly fierce ’80s accessories. Where else can you get spanking new-old "Cheer up, emo kid," Mr. Snuffleupagus, Roxy Music, and Johnny Wadd Ts in one fell, freshly ironed swoop?

1603 Haight, SF. (415) 255-8446,


Get your Ipath Bigfoot and Western Edition Mingus shirts right here, along with oodles of other contenders.

1632 Haight, SF. (415) 626-0663,


The large-livin’ API groundbreakers still peddle locals Barry McGee and Mark Gonzales as well as Daniel Johnston shirts and the ever-popular Geoff McFetridge 2K "I’m Rocking on Your Dime" T.

618 Shrader, SF. (415) 876-4773.


A rail of vintage Ts beckons, from a ’70s-era "Natural Gas" number to a Morrissey You Are the Quarry lovely.

1542 Haight, SF. (415) 864-0818


Marcel Dzama’s frail ye olde comic critters, Ferris Plock’s sketchy characters, Neckface’s doom metal demons, and Clare Rojas’s folkloric scenes populate Park Life.

220 Clement, SF. (415) 386-7275,


Joining the Gucci knockoffs, denim, and ’70s leather are soft-as-my-55-year-old-uncle’s-midriff surfer shirts.

1764 Haight, SF. (415) 422-0046


Poppy yet pretty in-house screens by, for instance, store co-owner Dora Drimalas coexist with Bawana Spoons, Spicy Brown, Hedorah, and Gama-Go Ts.

1628 Post, SF. (415) 409-4700,


Urban outfits cry "Brother, please" for a Zoo York T sporting a Ruthless Records’ NWA single, Parish’s pop art Popsicles, Akomplice abstractions, or Free Gold Watches’ splashy ’80s evocations. Ladies, check Ts by Tens, Palis, Heavy Rotation, and Blood Is the New Black, as well as Mama T’s pseudo-airbrushed ghetto sweetness.

True Men, 1415 Haight, SF. (415) 626-2882; True Women, 1427 Haight, SF. (415) 626-2331; True, 1335 S. Main, Walnut Creek. (925) 280-6747.


The hella loyal cult that follows this pioneer of urban styles can stock up on all the Muni and Miles UP and Fifty24SF Ts it can stand now that the shop has split in two for men and women — with fresh Jeremy Fish, Sam Flores, and Estevan Oriol for all.

220 Fillmore, SF. (415) 252-0144,