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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Tess Reidy

‘Pretty stupid but that’s the appeal’: why vintage slogan T-shirts are back

Wham (George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley) performing in 1984 with slogan T-shirts.
Wham (George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley) performing in 1984 with slogan T-shirts. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

“Don’t take life so seriously, it isn’t permanent”. So said a T-shirt sold by secondhand trader Rory Bruton at Portobello market in London. On a busy Friday, the stalls were awash with people swapping, selling and buying slogan T-shirts. “They always sell really quickly,” says Bruton. “The slogans are mostly pretty stupid but that’s the appeal I suppose.”

Bruton is one of the many retailers at the heart of a trend for vintage statement tees from the 70s, 80s and 90s. The Face magazine says they are “all the rage at the moment” and i-D is calling them “iconic”. Top designers are also getting in on the act. Stella McCartney’s SS23 collection sprawled “Change the history” across a jumper while Balenciaga has “Free styling tips” slapped on the chest.

“A thought-provoking, witty statement on a tee from some weird US advert from the 90s is a way to make an impression,” says Matt Sloane, founder of Jerks, a curated vintage fashion store. “People want to wear something eye-catching and interesting, something you’re not going to find again. Some are funny, some are crude, plenty are not PC any more. ”

Some say their current popularity is down to price. A “so many books, so little time” T-shirt, for example, will set you back £52. “Life is a journey” comes in at £62. When some band tees can fetch as much as £400 secondhand, this is considered a bargain. “It’s a more affordable option in a market that’s getting expensive, while still offering a unique item – which is the big appeal of vintage today,” says Alex Powis, art director and author of Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street.

The trend is also linked to supply. With various thrift stores, archivists and resale sites, such as Vestiaire Collective and Depop, all offering secondhand goods, experts say there is not an infinite amount of clothing from these times, and slogan T-shirts are a category that has so far not been tapped into and where there is a lot of stock available.

A statement T-shirt from JERKS.
A statement T-shirt from JERKS. Photograph: Jerks

“Quite often, they were given away in petrol stations or given to employees because they were so cheap to produce,” says NJ Stevenson, fashion curator and lecturer at the London College of Fashion. “They appeared for pretty much anything – salesmen would have them, milk adverts, political campaigns. There were slogan T-shirts for absolutely everything,”

Powis thinks that’s what makes them interesting: “These started life as mass-produced stock, and they’ve aged into unique items with genuine authenticity.”

However, there are fears that big retail players such as Primark, which recently launched a new vintage clothing section at its Birmingham and Manchester stores, and Superdry will soon monopolise this market as they can afford to buy huge volumes, which curated small traders simply cannot do.

Pascal Matthias, who teaches fashion at Southampton University, thinks we are likely to see high-street stores jumping on the trend, especially as they are popular amongst Gen Z and Gen Alpha. “There is a sense of identity that a vintage slogan T-shirt gives, and brands are picking up on this.”

So how should you style them, and does it matter what they say? Jay McCauley Bowstead, lecturer in cultural and historical studies at the London College of Fashion, thinks ironic vintage fashion works because it is slightly gross or naff: “If you are able to wear it and look cool in it, you’re doubly cool. You’re signalling to people that you’re in the know.”

Stylist Amy Holden-Brown says she has to keep the slogans clean. “I’ve got so many but I work with a lot of young musicians and they will not wear the rude ones at all.”

On Portobello, it’s the opposite. “The ruder the better from my experience,” says Bruton. “As long as it’s not inflammatory.”

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