A Brief History of Graphic Tees

February 13, 2023

Funny T-Shirts

One of the best ways to make a statement is to wear a graphic t-shirt. Whether you’re repping yourfavorite team, celebrating yourfandom, supportinga cause, or simplyshowing off your humor, graphic tees let you freely express yourself.

You may not know that t-shirts and graphic shirts have their fair share of history. Before becoming the wardrobe staple people have come to love, the t-shirt went through several iterations and reputations. It wasn’t even until the 1960s that graphic t-shirts gained worldwide popularity.

There are a lot of interesting facts to unpack on your favorite fashion statement, so grab a drink, make yourself comfortable, and let’s dive into the storied history of the t-shirt.

The Evolution of The T-Shirt

T-shaped shirts were first introduced back in the Middle Ages as an undergarment for men. They were made of either linen or woven cotton and had long shirt tails tucked between the legs. However, during the 19th century, t-shaped shirts began to evolve.

First, the shirt tails found their way out of the design, and the t-shaped shirts began to take on a more form-fitting look. Other textiles such as wool, jersey, and calico were used to make t-shaped undershirts.

In the late 19th century, British sailors made it a habit to wear white flannel t-shirts under their uniforms. This influenced working-class men to start wearing t-shirts as outerwear during the weekends.

When the 20th century rolled in, the t-shirt business started to pick up. In 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company (later known as Jockey) introduced the “bachelor undershirt.” It was an upgrade from the union suit, a popular men’s undergarment similar to long johns. The bachelor undershirt is a long-sleeved t-shirt marketed as a no-fuss undergarment with no safety pins, needles, thread, or buttons involved.

By 1913, the US Navy began using white cotton t-shirts as undershirts because they dried faster and were more comfortable. The US Army also adopted this practice, along with other manual laborers.

As you may have already figured out, the t-shirtgot its name because this sleeve shirt has the same shape as the capital letter T. However, the term wasn’t coined until 1920, when F. Scott Fitzgerald used it to describe a piece of clothing in his novelThis Side of Paradise.

In 1938, retailer Sears, Roebuck, and Company began selling white cotton shirts they called “gob” (slang for sailor), which they advertised as an undershirt and an outer shirt. The gob-style shirt became part of the Roebuck & Co. catalog along with its remarkable tagline, “You needn’t be a soldier to have your t-shirt customized.”

During wartime, the t-shirt was linked with the military and heroic masculinity. After World War II, this perception was solidified. T-shirts became a symbol of manliness in the United States.

The t-shirt eventually made its way into men’s wardrobes as a standalone piece of clothing that could be worn outside work. White t-shirts became even more mainstream in the 1950s when Hollywood actors Marlon Brando and James Dean donned them on screen. The rebellious characters they played also associated the t-shirt with a rebellion movement.

In the 1960s, actresses and singers also began wearing t-shirts; by the 1970s, it was widely accepted as unisex clothing.

The Birth of Graphic Tees

The graphic tee hasn’t been around for as long as t-shirts. It’s a fashion statement that never goes out of style because there’s a graphic print for every taste and personality. Check out the colorful history behind this popular closet staple!

The very first appearance of the print tee was in the 1939 filmThe Wizard of Oz. Three minions fixing up the scarecrow wore bright green t-shirts embellished with the word “OZ” in white.

In 1948 US presidential candidate Thomas Dewey printed his slogan “Dew it with Dewey” on t-shirts. Though he eventually lost the race, his iconic promotional material stuck with the masses.

During the 1950s, a Miami-based printing company named Tropix Togs held the original license to print Disney characters. Walt Disney used promotional t-shirts to market his brand, including Disney films and the newly-opened Disneyland theme park.

Soon, more people discovered Disney’s bankable idea, and other establishments began offering their promotional graphic shirts as wearable souvenirs.

In 1962,Andy Warhol popularized photographic silkscreen printing. This commercial process of transferring a print onto a canvas allowed him to produce the popular culture images he’s best known for. Through photographic silkscreen printing, Warhol was able to create precise and defined images. The printing method also made mass production easier for him.

When the ‘70s rolled in, t-shirts became a powerful messaging platform. Theband t-shirt was born, and soon, fans were showing off rock band logos on their shirts. One of the most well-known rock band shirts is Rolling Stones’ “tongue and lips,” created by artist John Pasche, which is now a vintage t-shirt.

AsThe New York Timesput it, the graphic tee shirt evolved into “the medium for the message.” Aside from displaying shocking rock band logos, graphic tees also became a canvas for social justice messages, like the anti-war movement. 

Dennis Nothdruft, the curator of the “Cult — Culture — Subversion” exhibit in London’s Fashion and Textile Museum,told BBC that he regards t-shirts as a “blank canvas…[that] associates you with a specific cultural movement or tribe.”

It wasn’t until the ‘90s that high fashion brands got on board the graphic tee train. As they began to utilize wash t-shirts to make their own versions of the graphic tee, the once working-class garment finally found its way to the elite members of society.

The T-Shirt Printing Method: 4 Common Ways to Create Graphic T-Shirts

There are several ways to produce a print t-shirt, and today, you’ll learn about the four common methods of t-shirt printing.

The two most popular are direct-to-garment (DTG) printing and screen printing. Other printing methods use heat transfer — heat press and dye sublimation. 

Direct-to-Garment Printing

Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing utilizes an inkjet printer to transfer the design directly onto the garment. Before starting the DTG printing process, re-treat the fabric and activate the treatment process.

Pure cotton is the best material for DTG printing, as it produces vibrant prints. However, you won’t be able to cover an entire t-shirt using this process.

What’s great about this printing method is it creates high-quality and full-color graphics, so you can use it to print photo images and detailed designs. Even better, you won’t feel the print when you touch the fabric! Inkjet printers can be expensive, but they work fast and can produce in small and large batches, so they’re still cost-effective.

Though somewhat new, the DTG printing method has come a long way in recent years. Newer technology gave way to a better printing quality that sets DTG apart from other methods. In fact, the vibrant and high-quality graphic tees you see inFamous In Real Life apparel collections are printed using the DTG process!

Screen Printing

Advancements in silkscreen printing technology during the 1960s paved the way for modern t-shirt printing.

Silkscreen or screen printing is a stencil-based technique that applies ink to the shirt using a mesh screen. This method is compatible with most clothing materials, such as cotton and polyester. However, it’s not suitable for large coverage areas.

This process produces vibrant and long-lasting prints because it uses special inks with a thicker consistency than other printing methods. Fibers absorb screen printing ink well, so the print doesn’t fade quickly. Screen printing is best for designs that use fewer colors.

This method has existed for a long time, with Chinese origins from as early as AD 221. Screen printing, also called serigraph, was first done by hand, but now printing companies use machines. This method of printing designs onto shirts is easy, fast, and inexpensive, so it’s ideal for mass production.

Heat Press Printing

To create a graphic t-shirt using heat transfer printing. 

The first step is to print your design digitally on the transfer paper using solvent ink. This ink effectively transfers the design to the t-shirt through a heat press machine. Next, lay the transfer paper on top of the garment. Then use the heat press to permanently stick the design to the fabric. Once done, remove the transfer paper and clean off any excess dye.

The versatility of heat press printing is excellent for creating custom t-shirts. It allows you to print almost any design and to cover the entire shirt with graphics. Plus, it produces vivid images that last long. Heat press printing also works on different fabrics and materials, as long as they’re heat resistant and not dark in color.

Dye Sublimation

Dye sublimation or all-over-printing (AOP) is another technique that utilizes heat transfer printing. You still need to digitally print your design, which can be simple, complex, or multicolor. This method requires the use of dye-based ink.

Unlike DTG and screen printing, dye sublimation lets you print all over the garment. However, it may not be possible to achieve a full sleeve graphic as folds and creases in the shirt are difficult to dye.

The heat and pressure turn the dye-based ink into gas and revert it to a solid state. As the dyes penetrate the fabric, they become part of the material and not just a layer on top. This produces a rich and long-lasting graphic for a printed t-shirt.

Dye sublimation works best with white fabrics and synthetic fibers like polyester. It doesn’t mix well with cotton, as the porous material causes bleeding and will only result in dull prints.

Show Off Your Sense of Humor With Funny Graphic T-Shirts!

Graphic tees aren’t just for political statements, advertisements, and promotional materials. It’s also an excellent way to show people your great sense of humor! To quotecurator Dennis Nothdruft, “[The T-shirt] is a fundamental way of telling the world who and what you are.”

When people discovered that they could customize their shirts, many slogans, pop culture references, and even spoofs started showing up on different clothing. Mind you, graphic tees aren’t limited to crew neck t-shirts. No matter what your clothing style is, whether that’s an oversized t-shirt, a short sleeve tee, or a tie-dye t-shirt, you can still rep your personality through prints

Brighten up your day with these wickedly funny shirts that are sure to catch the right attention.

Flat Earth Society

Flat Earth Society T-Shirt

Somewhat controversial, but who doesn’t love a little drama once in a while?

I Put The Fun in Funeral

I Put The Fun In Funeral

The best legacy you can leave behind.

Hold On, Let Me Overthink This

Hold On Let Me Overthink This T-Shirt

You’re not you when you don’t overthink.

OK, Boomer

Ok Boomer T-Shirt

Say no more!

I’m Sure Drunk Me Had Their Reasons

I’m Sure Drunk Me Had Their Reasons T-Shirt

Never let them know your next move.

Resting My Eyes

Resting My Eyes T-Shirt

Don’t turn off the TV!

Nap Champ

Nap Champ T-Shirt

Where are the new moms at?

We Have Food At Home

We Have Food At Home T-Shirt

Tough luck, kids.

Go Ask Your Dad / Go Ask Your Mom Graphic Tees

Go Ask Your Dad T-ShirtGo Ask Your Mom T-Shirt


And they say the perfect couple shirt doesn’t exist. Teamwork makes the dream work!

Co-Worker of The Year

Co-Worker Of The Year T-Shirt

How come they’re allowed to sleep on the job??

Let’s Circle Back On That

Let's Circle Back On That T-Shirt

A phrase that everyone pretends to understand the first time they hear it.

I Put The Pro in Procrastinate

I Put The Pro In Procrastinate T-Shirt

It’s what you do best.

Find More Funny Shirts That Go With Your Personality

TheFamous In Real Life apparel collections offer lots of different styles, from sleeveless shirts to oversized graphic tees. You can also find an awesome shirt for your fandom (did anybody sayStar Wars?) or for any special occasion, you’re celebrating (check out thisskull graphic shirt from our Gasparilla Pirate apparel!).

Discover more relatable and hilarious shirts that are right up your alley in ourFunny Shirts collection. We have a feeling you’ll love ourParenting Humor andWorkplace Humor collections as well, so while you’re at it, go and check them out too!


Funny T-Shirts

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