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How to Appraise a Vintage T-Shirt

How to Appraise a Vintage T-Shirt

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How to Appraise a Vintage T-Shirt

So you found an old rock tee while rummaging through your Grandpappy’s dresser. Have you struck it rich? You quickly call up a search on eBay for said tee and notice the very same design posted for sale at $1,000! Boom! Ipso facto, the value of your shirt is $1,000, right?!

Wrong.

What it’s listed for is not usually what it’s worth, so call off your plans for early retirement. There, there, don’t lose all hope. Depending on who is offering it for sale and their knowledge of the market, it could still be quite valuable. But in most cases those big-bucks eBay tees remain unsold for years because they’re listed by novice sellers who overvalue their items using the same flawed valuation method above.

First things first. Let’s make sure your t-shirt is actually vintage, so begin by familiarizing yourself with our vintage t-shirt definitions. If you’re new to this niche it’s quite easy to get fooled by modern-day so-called “vintage” t-shirt companies who churn out tees with aged characteristics.

Try to match your tee’s tag with our basic brand guide which features the most prevalent types of old tags. The majority of brands used back in the day are now defunct so tags are a reliable indicator of age. If you don’t find a match, dig deeper using our BrandPedia and forum. Once you get a match, read up on our guide to identifying a reproduction and spotting a fake to make sure it’s true vintage.

Congrats, Sherlock. If you’re still reading and nodding your head yes, then your t-shirt is the real deal! Now let’s get to the fun part.

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Appraisal via eBay

The traditional way to appraise your tee is to use eBay. First, perform a search for your shirt, then filter the results using the “sold listings” option on the left panel. Then tailor your search just a touch more by specifying “Price: highest first.” The transactions highlighted with green prices are what the t-shirt actually sold for – a confirmation that cold, hard cash exchanged hands.

Many times you’ll notice “Best Offer Accepted” with the original price struck out. eBay doesn’t reveal the exact price that was accepted, but you can get a good idea if you look at the price above and below the tee in question. Since you’ve specified results in order of value, the best-offer t-shirt sold for an amount somewhere in between.

Given Led Zeppelin tees have been fetching small fortunes in recent years, let’s pretend Grandpappy had a whole lotta love for Zep. We’ll use them as our sold-item search example.

Led Zeppelin eBay Prices

Examining the search results above, we know the 1975 $489.00 Zeppelin tee actually fetched between $205.49 and $300. These search results are a solid start for an appraisal because they’re a mix of fixed and auction prices.

In most cases, auctions come in lower than market value. Fixed prices are typically inflated, especially with a “Make Offer” button usually attached to each listing.

Let’s say Gramps had that same white 1975 Zep print. Can you safely say it’s worth $250? Not always. There are a number of variables that can positively or negatively affect the value of your garment. So let’s make sure you’re not asking too much – or worse – too little. That’s what I’ll discuss next.

Keep in mind that due to the surge of vintage dealers selling through Instagram and Instagram Live auctions, a huge segment of vintage t-shirt sales aren’t going on record.  And other marketplaces (Etsy, Grailed, Depop, etc) don’t make it convenient, or even possible, to look up past sales. But given many of these sellers source their inventory from eBay it’s still a valuable appraisal tool, and really the only one we have. For example, a sold items search for the currently very hot Marvel All Over Prints reveals that eBay is still very relevant.

Condition

Like most collectibles, the condition is a prime factor. But t-shirts are different than comic books because, in the comic niche, condition reigns supreme. The better condition of the book, the higher the value, no exceptions. You don’t get any points in the comic value department if the copy has obviously been read and has some character. Wait, you actually read the comic book?! You fool! They should always be placed in a vacuum-sealed Mylar bag directly from the printing press and immediately sent to be graded and encapsulated in plastic.

T-shirts are a different story. They’re a little more like collectible coins, in that the buyer typically doesn’t mind the patina. Although in more recent years vintage t-shirt buyers will pay a premium for deadstock. In most cases, a little character on a tee won’t decrease its value. “Worn thin” or “see-through” fabric are qualities some niche buyers seek out and will pay a premium for. But those particular buyers actually plan to wear these tees frequently (not stash them away next to the Ark of the Covenant.)

Major issues like holes, fabric snags, and stains are a different story. Worry not, as some decade-old stains can be removed safely and there are even some things you can do to improve the condition. Even lived-in wear on a high-end tee won’t harm the value. A mint piece isn’t necessarily the holy grail, it might even be a red flag for a fake item. But as a general rule: an item without any stains or holes with an intact tag has maxed out on value in terms of condition.

Size

The size of the t-shirt in question can heavily factor into its value. Given we’re dealing with garments produced decades ago and humans are now bigger (damn you, McDonald’s!) a vintage size small is basically a women’s or youth size. A small will take most people looking to wear that tee out of the mix. A vintage XL is always optimal in terms of value. It will likely fit most people, therefore that size is attractive to a wider variety of buyers. Modern buyers also prefer a loose fit, that they’ll never get from a 1970s or 1980s tee. An XL from the 90s is usually much bigger than one from previous decades.

Fabric

If your tee has the rare rayon blend in the fabric – congrats, it might be even more valuable. For a period of time in the early to mid-2010s, rayon had a moment, where the blend alone meant even the most basic t-shirt had increased value. The first generation of vintage t-shirt buyers preferred 50/50 poly-cotton over 100% cotton. Why? Because it just feels better! It’s also a blend that gives a t-shirt a higher percentage of stronger fibers, so in theory, these t-shirts could be more durable. The other knock against 100% cotton is that they tended to shrink more than their 50/50 counterparts. In the early 2000s, there was also a surge of poor quality, stiff, 100% cotton t-shirt makers.

Rayon Fabric Blend

Tag

The presence of a vintage tag can boost the value of a t-shirt. For one, the t-shirt is not missing any of its original parts, but it can also help authenticate a t-shirt. Certain tags tend to have more appeal. 3D emblem tags for example seem to have an automatic value among certain collectors. Brockum, Giant, and Winterland are synonymous with music tees and are always in demand. Tags are such an important component of the value that fake tags are on the rise.

Age

This appraisal factor can be tricky. One might assume that an early-1970s tee is worth more than one from the 1980s. Maybe, but there are many variables to consider. For example, tees from the ’70s are even smaller than those from the ’80s. Tees from the 1960s and earlier decades get increasingly valuable just by virtue of age and rarity. Even undershirts from the turn of the century can fetch a fortune, so you can imagine what the first tees with prints might be worth.

The early-era tees attract a different type of buyer: the vintage clothing collector. Some will pay big bucks based on historical and fashion significance and they likely would never wear the item.

Currently, t-shirts from circa 2000 are in heavy demand and are outpricing 1980s stuff.

If you happen to stumble across an OZ shirt from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, you can start thinking about retirement again.

Wizard of Oz Shirts 1939

Print Type, Location, Color, and Design

Early ink and screen prints are optimal. If you’ve got a heat transfer – I hate to break this to you, but it’s not worth much more than the t-shirt it’s printed on (actually, that may not be true given vintage blanks can be quite valuable.) There are a few rare exceptions from the 1960s and early ’70s that have value. The problem is that heat transfers are less likely to withstand the test of time because washers and dryers wreak havoc on the print until it’s basically unrecognizable. Not only that – there are stacks of unused original transfers from the 1970s and ‘8os still floating around. Some are literally a dime a dozen.

I’ve always found that 1970s and 80s tees with small prints over one side of the chest (or no front print at all) with a print on the back are less desirable (with 1980s Skateboarding tees being the one exception). However, in recent years designs with a large “back hit” have been embraced and even called a “Mullet“. Buyers generally want a substantially sized print on the front. A back print is always a bonus and can boost the value, especially if it’s a band tour tee with a unique set of dates. For many years the all-over print that covers the majority of fabric (front, back, and arms) was less desirable. Although in recent years it has surged in popularity among the new generation of buyers.

Value-wise, on average, there’s an edge to multi-color prints. A one-color print from the ’80s, when the color process was widely available, is not doing your garment’s value any favors. One-color prints are more often targetted by counterfeiters because they are low-hanging fruit, easier to reproduce.

I’ve also seen the odd t-shirt print from sought-after artists be a tough sell because of bad color palettes, or ugly or offensive prints. Some people just prefer not having a starved, half-naked man sprawled across their chest. Of course, for every rule there are exceptions. Even in today’s politically correct climate some offensive t-shirt artwork is extremely sought-after and pricey.

All-Over and Small Chest Tee Print

T-Shirt Type & Color

The cut of the tee plays a huge role. A regular t-shirt performs best and far better than a long-sleeved t-shirt. Tank tops or sleeveless tees are least desirable – not everyone wants to show off their guns. In the mid-2000s ringer t-shirts saw a huge boost in value. It didn’t even really matter what was printed on them because they were in style at the time. But that fad completely fizzled by 2010 and the desire for ringers and their value dwindled. Jerseys/raglans also suffered a dip, although not as severe as they are still far more desired than ringers are today. However, all rock jerseys with camouflage arms have seen a boost as of late – likely a trickle-down effect from the most sought-after Iron Maiden jerseys. Cyclical fashion trends have a big impact on the value and you can bet that both styles will once again have their day in the sun. Having said all that – the most sound type is the standard t-shirt – it’s classic and isn’t subject to trends.

The color of the fabric is usually the least influential factor, but it’s worth mentioning. Over the past decade, I’ve noticed that yellow, pink, and red tees have consistently been less desirable. Black can have a slight edge over white because it can hide stains better.

Construction

In recent years there’s been a trend toward “single-stitch” t-shirts which were mostly the norm for 70s, 80s, and early 90s tees. By the mid-90s manufacturers started pivoting toward double-stitch and by 2000 it had become mostly standard.

Supply, Demand, and Hype

When MJ passed away, all his collectibles skyrocketed way beyond their value for several months. Those who purchased during that time will likely never recoup their investment. Well, unless he faked his death and records a new hit album and quickly passes away again. You can bet if the original Guns N’ Roses lineup ever re-formed for a concert, that hype would trickle down to the value of their vintage tees. Newsworthy goings-on are always a good time to sell, not to buy.

Certain bands like Iron Maiden have massive loyal followings that don’t fade with age and whose appeal passes on to new generations. As a result, demand and value are both consistent and get an extra boost when Maiden announces they are touring.

Limited Prints

Speaking of Iron Maiden, they’ve always had a brilliant approach to their t-shirt designs. Maiden printed smaller batches of tour tees that were customized for each country, state, or even city they played. As a result, there are fewer examples of each design out there and certain collectors want to own each variation.

Or sometimes, only a handful of t-shirts were even distributed at all – some via mailing lists, while others were custom-made for media gatherings or event staff. Think Woodstock – cha-ching!

vintage woodstock 1969 security t-shirt

Provenance, Celebrity, and Autographed

If the vintage t-shirt in question was once worn by a celebrity – especially a dead one – the value can go through the roof. The problem is in proving it. Without certification, it’s just a story. I witnessed this scenario play out a few times with two iconic shirts, both allegedly belonging to Kurt Cobain. Each back-story seemed convincing enough – and, in one instance, the story managed to inflate the value of the shirt to $2,500. If the owner of that shirt is able to do a DNA profile to prove its smell really is teen spirit, it would be worth 10-times the amount he paid for it. Good luck pulling that off. In other words, the buyer will likely have a hard time being able to recoup his loot. Although with the introduction of NFTs the provenance of vintage t-shirts may soon go digital and 100% verifiable as originating from a celebrity.

A t-shirt worn by an actor in a popular film will inflate its value. Brad Pitt’s character from Fight Club, Tyler Durden, still has fans scouring the planet looking for duplicates of the clothing he wore in the film. Someone once paid $1,750 for a vintage Indy 500 t-shirt similar to one he appeared in briefly. Amazing, considering it wasn’t even the shirt off his back.

Kurt Cobain and Brad Pitt's T-Shirts

Believe it or not, a signed vintage t-shirt is worth significantly less than its non-signed counterpart. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule – mainly depending on who signed it and the scarcity of their autograph. The crazy thing is, buyers, want the option of being able to wear a t-shirt. Weird, huh? Autographed tees can be worn – but buyers know they will never be able to wash them, or, bye-bye signature. And when a shirt is signed, chances are it has never been washed. In the second-hand clothing world, that’s a turn-off.

Re-issues, Repros, and Fakes

Sometimes musicians will re-issue a classic design via their website. Or some jerk will flood the eBay market with bootleg tees designed to dupe people into thinking they’re vintage. Neither is good for the value of a specific design. I’ve seen certain designs plummet in value because buyers are too worried about authenticity and then they avoid them like the plague.

While eBay is awesome for appraising, purchasing there has its share of pitfalls. We have handpicked many of the world’s most trusted vendors who offer the very same selection on our system at a reduced price. Besides, who does eBay come to when they want to really understand an amazing collectible? Us.


So there you have it – a solid approach to determining your shirt’s value. Remember – as with everything else – a t-shirt is also worth what someone is willing to pay for it. Case in point: the $6000 all-over print Aladdin Genie t-shirt.

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Thoughts? Are there any other factors I missed? Let’s hear your comments below!

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