Vintage T-shirts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am

Vintage T-shirts
by Patrick & Marc Guetta
Taschen HK$283

First let me get this off my chest: I am a T-shirt addict. I just discovered I own 71 T-shirts, which I imagine puts me fairly high up on the male tee ownership scale.

It's been a long-term obsession. When I was a teenager, the best presents I received were T-shirts from my more hip uncles. The shirts usually bore the names of bands I wasn't really aware of then, but had designs infinitely cooler than what my mother was buying me.

And since becoming an adult, I have pored over T-shirts on sale everywhere from the back streets of Shinjuku and Mong Kok to the murkiest corners of the internet in search of the ultimate tee: a random combination of eye-catching design, feel-good fabric and - perhaps most elusive of all - wearability.

I am obviously not alone in my obsession. Otherwise, Vintage T-Shirts - a gorgeously displayed selection of more than 650 classic tee graphics which may be skewed towards Americana but still manage to speak a global language - would never have seen the light of day.

A T-shirt is a previously blank canvas that has been hijacked to advertise everything from the wearer's musical tastes to their politics, sense of humour, favourite sports team and even preference for hot dogs. But over the years the humble tee has become much greater than the sum of its parts.

In a very brief introduction, the book outlines the history of the garment. Initially conceived as underwear, the T-shirt remained mostly hidden until the second world war, when magazines started printing photos of US servicemen out of uniform and relaxing in their standard-issue white tees.

By the 1950s, the T-shirt had become a symbol of rebellion thanks to the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, but the biggest revolution was sparked by advances in fabric screen-printing and heat-transfer technology up to the 1970s.

History aside, it's the graphics that tee obsessives want to see, and they won't be disappointed. The shirts are grouped into chapters including music, sports and recreation, sexy, tourism, entertainment, politics and entertainment, surf and sun, and drugs and alcohol.

The emphasis is obviously on the vintage, so the reader is treated to shirts promoting classic bands including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, and forgotten TV shows such as Alf and movies like Beverly Hills Cop.

And it's this that provides an insight into the nature of fandom and the affiliations we choose to declare on our chests. A TV show or movie is an ephemeral event, meant to be enjoyed in the moment and not follow you through your life like the music of your favourite band. But for some the impact must obviously be as important: otherwise why would someone want to boast an affiliation with Beverly Hills 90210 on their chest?

These shirts are vintage now, but what will future volumes of Vintage T-Shirts showcase? Will it be Twilight, Taylor Swift, CSI: Miami? Whatever's included, I just pray T-shirts are still around then. Otherwise, what else am I going to wear?