Webster’s dictionary has this to say about the definition of vintage when used as an adjective:
But thanks to “the internets” the definition of vintage when applied to t-shirts has become quite muddled. This is mostly due to t-shirt manufacturers looking to leverage a popular marketing keyword. If you Google “vintage t-shirts” you wont find a single result on page one that offers actual vintage t-shirts. Instead you’re presented with modern day t-shirt manufacturers who produce new items that have a vintage look (like faux wear on the design), straight up reproductions of old designs or new versions of retro imagery.
Webster is probably rolling around in his grave right now. Not only was he an extremely small and talented sit-com actor, he was also a stickler for diction. Put away the tissues, I was just kidding – the little fella is still alive and could care less about grammar.
Noah Webster on the other hand, who published dictionaries and has long since passed, is indeed rolling around in his grave.
So let’s define vintage t-shirts and other related terminology – how they are used on our site (and in reality.)
Is a short form for Vintage. It was originally adapted as a search synonym on eBay to give sellers more room in limited character listing titles. When comparing the two searches on eBay, they bring exactly the same search results. While Google seems to recognize it as a short form, the two variations bring back quite different results.
Applying Webster’s definition – a “vintage t-shirt” is a t-shirt that is not new. That leaves a big grey area, but suffice to say they don’t mean one year old. Some say 10, we say at least 15 years old. On Defunkd, a t-shirt must be at least 15 years old to be considered vintage. That’s why we don’t allow any t-shirts to be posted that were manufactured beyond the year 1999.
A true vintage t-shirt can usually be identified by its tag, with most of them now defunct. Typically they were made with a 50/50 blend of polyester and cotton which ensured they were softer. Although there was also a significant amount of 100% cotton blends.
This term refers to a t-shirt that is also at least 15 years old – yet wasn’t licensed. Many of these were sold out of concert parking lots in the 1970s and 80s. They typically featured original artwork with a style that become synonymous with bootlegs. Given they are actually vintage, they are more scarce (far less were manufactured) and had original designs, they can be just as valuable as a rock artist’s licensed vintage t-shirts. Sorry, Metallica.
Deadstock Vintage or NOS (New Old Stock)
Used to describe tees printed in another era that became excess/unsold inventory and typically ended up in storage. Most times they are in mint condition, however, sometimes storage conditions and being left unwashed can adversely affect their condition.
Retro tees are t-shirts manufactured in modern times, using original, yet vintage-themed artwork for a nostalgic appeal. They’re printed on new t-shirts that many times are manufactured with softer fabric blends.
Reproduction or Reissue T-Shirt
These tees are also manufactured in modern times but they use artwork that was created in another era. Some of them are licensed, some of them aren’t. Metallica for example has reissued many of their 1980s designs. To make things a touch more confusing – some of these were reissued over 15 years ago so reproductions eventually become vintage reproductions.
Bootleg or Counterfeit Vintage
These happen when dishonest people set out to create a t-shirt in modern times and pass them off for true vintage. They make their best effort to copy an original and sought-after design. They’ll find quantities of old blank tees or unbranded modern-day vintage-esque tees. Then they’ll typically post them online alongside a small number of actual vintage t-shirts to dupe consumers into shelling out of them. Booooo.
Mid or Midrange
This refers to the value of a particular shirt, commonly selling in the $50 range.
The definition of this appears to vary a ton but it typically refers to more expensive and/or harder to find vintage t-shirts.
A mullet t-shirt is one that features a small print on the front, typically over the left breast, and a large print on the rear aka a “back-hit.” They were named this as an homage to the mullet hairstyle.
Refers to the print on a given t-shirt.
This type of screen print covers the entire shirt, front, and back.
Heat Transfer Print / Iron-on
These prints were often created in novelty shops in the 70s and 80s and were on-demand. The customer would select a print that was then pressed on a blank t-shirt using a heat press. The prints don’t withstand the test of time, often fading and decaying over years.
Screen printed t-shirts go through a process using film to generate screens that each represent a single color. Ink is then spread across the screen and then cured under heat lamps. The process repeats for each color.
This term refers to dealers who have been in the business for a long time, veteran vintage t-shirt sellers are old-heads.
Single stitch refers to the finishing stitch commonly used in the construction of a vintage t-shirt. Modern t-shirts often use a double row of stitching on the arm, cuff hem, and lower hem.
Is a t-shirt that contains 50% cotton and 50% polyester fibers.
Is a t-shirt that contains 3 different fibers, often in a blend of 50% polyester, 35% cotton, and 15% rayon.
This type of t-shirt generally has colored “rings” as the neck and arm cuff openings. A white-based t-shirt for example might have a red collar and arm seams.
Jersey / Raglan
This type of t-shirt commonly has different color arms that are 3/4 in length and might also have a non-linear lower hem. They were inspired by shirts worn by baseball players.
This refers to t-shirts that have a small pocket, typically over the left breast.
Vintage T-Shirts 101: eBay Buyer’s Guide
Vintage T-Shirts 102: Say NO to Repro
Vintage T-Shirts 103: The Brand Gallery
Vintage T-Shirt 104: How to “Spot” a Fake