It should come as no surprise that we at BlueCotton love T-shirts – especially unique, iconic and rare T-shirts. While walking around our office, it’s not uncommon to overhear someone remarking about finding a great tee over the weekend, what their favorite shirt is, or having a light-hearted debate about the greatest T-shirt of all time. But a T-shirt is just a T-shirt, right? Wrong – especially if you’ve spent as much time around this industry as we have.
The T-shirt got its humble beginnings in 1913 when the U.S. Navy issued crewneck tees to be worn under uniforms. In the decades since, tees became more stylish with prints and slogans. They got political in the 1940s when New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s campaign designed ones with the phrase “Dew it with Dewey” printed on them when he ran for president. Even Hollywood contributed to the T-shirt’s popularity when Marlon Brando sported one in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire.
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While it’s impossible to decide which is the greatest T-shirt of all time – and trust us, we’ve tried – we were able to come to some agreement on about 20 that stood out to us in one way or another. From tees made for landmark moments in history to the world’s most expensive shirt, each one of these garments has earned its place on this list.
The following list is a stroll down memory lane through popular movies, rock ‘n’ roll, cultural movements, social statements, funky fads and so much more. We hope you enjoy and share this with your friends as a fun piece of T-shirt trivia. Keep reading to learn about awesome graphic vintage tees and expensive shirt brands you never knew about before!
Superlative Luxury T-Shirt
Where else can we begin this list but with a T-shirt that has a sticker price of $400,000? Superlative Luxury shirt designs were introduced in 2012 in London, and Superlative is now one of the world’s most renowned luxury shirt brands. Depending on who you ask, Superlative also makes the most expensive T-shirt in the world. This shirt is plain black with a spherical pattern that has 16 certified diamonds on it.
Led Zeppelin 1979 Backstage Pass T-Shirt
When you return to the stage after a four-year break and everyone in the world wants a backstage pass, what do you do? Well, if you’re rock legends Led Zeppelin, you create a limited number of T-shirts printed to act as passes, both to keep people from counterfeiting passes, as well as to make your guests feel extra special. And, for the lucky concertgoers who kept their shirt for all these years, they now sell for more than $10,000, making them the rarest and most sought-after Led Zeppelin T-shirts in the world. This is a prime example of vintage band T-shirts.
J$ “King of NY” T-Shirt
This shirt makes the list due to its rarity. Initially produced as a collaboration with filmmaker Joe Chan, no two seasons of the King of NY collection are alike, as they used different printing processes and color schemes every time.
Rolling Stones “Lick” T-Shirt
No list is complete without the iconic Rolling Stones “Lick” shirt. The story goes that after several failed attempts by the Stones’ record label to provide them with a logo that was to their liking, Mick Jagger took things into his own hands. The band logo was eventually designed by John Pasche, an art student at the Royal College of Art in London at the time, and was introduced to the public in 1970.
UNICEF Cargo Flight T-Shirt
UNICEF began selling T-shirts as a way to create awareness and raise money for their programs, which provide food, clothes, shelter and more to people in need around the world. The prices on most of their tees range from $18 to $1,000. However, one particular shirt-which is just a simple white shirt with a green printed plane dropping supplies-recently sold for almost $300,000.
UNICEF 1996 Olympics T-Shirt
As we mentioned above, UNICEF’s shirts have done an amazing job raising money for many of their causes. Similarly, these T-shirts from the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta raised nearly $1 million in total, with the highest bid generated on the final day of auction reaching $42,000.
Apple Invisible Man “Think” T-Shirt
Talk about a blast from the past! Most of the iPhone generation won’t remember that when this T-shirt first came out, Apple was the underdog in the tech world. This tee is not only a reminder of the days when Apple was nothing more than a small startup, but it’s also a highly sought-after collector’s item.
John Lennon Home T-Shirt
The Home T-shirts have been world-famous ever since John Lennon took a photo wearing one. They were designed by Finn of FINN studios and made for the owner of the restaurant called Home. While you can find replica shirts in a number of places, John Lennon’s original shirt was auctioned off for $16,400. That price tag makes it one of the most expensive vintage tees ever.
Run-D.M.C. “My Adidas” T-Shirt
The rise of hip-hop in the ’80s and subsequent rise of a new clothing style was most evident with this Run-D.M.C. Adidas T-shirt. Before Adidas started making new versions of this classic, originals from Run-D.M.C.’s tour were fetching upwards of $13,000.
John Lennon 1971 War Is Over T-Shirt
Many people are familiar with Happy Xmas (War Is Over), arguably one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time, which was originally performed by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band in 1971. What you may not be familiar with is that they designed a series of T-shirts bearing the song’s lyrics “War is over! If you want it!” to promote the single. There aren’t many still left, and in 2007, a surviving shirt sold at Christie’s in New York for $1,875.
Vote for Pedro T-Shirt
This is in reference to the 2004 cult classic movie Napoleon Dynamite. The Vote for Pedro T-shirt has remained popular over the past 10-plus years, even though it’s a relatively simple design. This is a great example of the impact visuals can have on the public.
Rolling Stones 1973 Goats Head Soup Tour Crew Shirt
Only 50 of these embroidered shirts, created for the crew members of the Rolling Stones’ 1973 tour, were ever made, and it is believed that only a few still exist. Created by Ritva and Mike Ross, one of these rare vintage T-shirts recently sold at Christie’s in New York for $4,250.
A staple for any kid who grew up in the late ’80s or early ’90s, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Association (D.A.R.E.) used these free T-shirts as a way to promote their program, which aimed to prevent teenagers from using drugs or engaging in gang activity and violence. Today, with an international presence in over 52 countries around the world, D.A.R.E. tees are still commonly seen.
1969 Woodstock T-Shirt
While most music festivals today have dozens of merchandise stands set up, when half a million people descended on Max Yasgur’s farm in New York in August 1969, that wasn’t one of the things they found. In fact, not a single piece of merchandise was created by the organizers of Woodstock. The only Woodstock shirts available were made by people who set up roadside stalls. This makes Woodstock T-shirts legendarily rare shirts for collectors and history buffs. The above tee is one example, and it fetched $1,188 at Christie’s in 2007.
Kanye West’s “Hip-Hop Shirt”
We love the traditional white T-shirt, but rarely do you see one that retails for $120. Enter Kanye West’s fashion collaboration with French clothing store A.P.C., which aimed to create a line of “luxurious clothing for the young and beautiful.” One such piece is this shirt, titled the “Hip-Hop Shirt.” Not only did it retail for $120, but it actually sold out!
1977 The Runaways Tour T-Shirt
The all-girl rock band The Runaways found themselves at the heart of the emerging punk scene on both sides of the Atlantic, and they embarked on a world tour in 1977. Their European “School Days” tour included 24 shows from October to December of that year, and the T-shirts that survived from that tour are now valued at up to $7,500 each.
Nike “Just Do It” T-Shirts
The slogan was coined in 1988 at an advertising agency meeting. Dan Wieden, founder of the Wieden+Kennedy agency, credits the inspiration for his “Just Do It” Nike slogan to Gary Gilmore’s last words before execution. While not the happiest of thoughts, this slogan and the millions of T-shirts that it is written on have become a staple of the 21st century.
1982 Metallica Metal Up Yours Shirt
The original 1982 Metallica shirt is the second tee Metallica created for sale. It is one of the most sought-after metal shirts in the world, and one of the hardest to find. Most of these never made it out of the ’80s. The ones that did have become collector’s items, as evident by Kim Kardashian spending over $2,000 for one.
Ready To Design Your Own Iconic T-Shirt?
Your podcast audience is growing. Your YouTube channel is exploding. You’re well on your way to being a TikTok influencer. You’re practically a social media icon. We promise you, your fans want merch, and they want it now! BlueCotton makes it so quick and easy to design your own custom T-shirts, there’s no reason to procrastinate any longer.
Use our online T-shirt designer to create your unique, iconic look. If you already have a design, it’s easy to upload it using the T-shirt designer. If you don’t, check out our design ideas for inspiration. When it comes to the shirts themselves, you’ll want to pick from well-known brands that your fanbase knows and trusts, like Gildan, Comfort Colors and Next Level. At BlueCotton, all production on your custom T-shirts will be done in-house by our U.S.-based team, and your custom shirts will be delivered to you quickly. If you have an urgent deadline, we also offer Super Rush or Shirts in a Day options.
Who knows? The one-of-a-kind tees you design could someday be among the expensive shirts available at a New York auction!