Atour around the high street this summer would uncover a few standout trends. Pretty off-the-shoulder tops. Basket bags. Bleached denim. Even some pool-ready inflatables. And at stores including Topshop, H&M, Primark and Forever 21, T-shirts for bands including AC/DC, Metallica, the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi. The kind of purchase once seen on merchandise stalls at gigs and market stalls in Camden Lock has gone mass.
What does it mean when something so aligned with an alternative point of view – one that prioritises your love of your favourite band as primary statement to the world – is co-opted by fashion? This year the humble band T-shirt has become something of a battleground between generations, where ideas of authenticity, image and symbolism are at loggerheads. This was writ large earlier this month when Kendall and Kylie Jenner released a series of T-shirts on their Kendall + Kylie website. On the front were designs that resembled T-shirts for Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and Ozzy Osbourne, with selfies of the sisters superimposed on top. Voletta Wallace, Biggie’s mother, was quick to denounce it on Instagram, posting an image of the T-shirt with a cross through it.
The T-shirts have since been withdrawn, with the Jenners posting identical messages of apology on each of their Twitter accounts. But they have arguably caught the flak of a change that has been happening for a while – the band T-shirt moving from merch stall to fashion item. Nicolas Ghesquière started it off in 2012, when he produced a T-shirt for Balenciaga using red font similar to that of Iron Maiden’s logo. Band shirts – or at least logos that have the look of a band shirt – were then a key part of the first Vetements collections, with T-shirts and hoodies in the spring/summer 2016 collection straight off a heavy-metal merch stall. Worn by Kanye West, Rihanna and Kylie Jenner, the look changed from fans at a gig to superstars with serious social media followings.
Topshop’s head of design Mo Riach says the AC/DC is their bestseller and that band T-shirts “epitomise that cool, laid-back, effortless look. They have become something of a wardrobe staple for the Topshop girl.” This is backed up by shoppers around the Oxford Circus store on a weekday afternoon. Nicole Green, who is 17 and from Lincolnshire, is wearing a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt. She says she has “heard of the band but couldn’t tell you any of their songs”. She has four band T-shirts including an AC/DC one. She says she likes them because “they’re part of a new era indie look” and that she would buy another one “if it was on trend”. Iman Kelly, 19, is in a Kiss sweatshirt from Primark. She has “listened to some of the music but I also like the style and look of the logo.” Kelly isn’t a purist though. “I don’t think it matters if someone is wearing a band T-shirt but doesn’t know the band,” she says. “If they like it, I don’t have a problem with it.”
These T-shirts seem, at first glance, to contrast with the “woke” movement’s impact on fashion. Making statements of causes you care about on your T-shirt is very 2017. It started last year with Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminist” T-shirt, then the Corbyn Nike T-shirt by Bristol Street Wear, which sold out during the election campaign. There is now a “Grenfell tube sign” T-shirt worn by Rita Ora, while Topshop has T-shirts proclaiming, simply, “Vote”. The next wave, though, moves on from the specific to something more generalised: “Save the Future”, “Make a Stand”, “Female Forever”, “Don’t Dress for Boys” or – who can argue with this one? – “Choose Love”. With digital culture, things that start in full voice – a political statement, fervent fandom for a band – quickly turn mass and, in the process, they fade to background chatter, becoming a trend rather than any niche statement of allegiance.
If someone in their teens sees these T-shirts as fashion statements, those in their 30s and beyond are more likely to view one as statement of identity, like wearing football colours. I am 39 and have six band T-shirts, all for bands or musicians that I love: Prince, the B-52s, Larry Levan, Hot Chip and – yes – New Kids on the Block. I tried – and failed – to buy a Frank Ocean T-shirt at his recent Lovebox gig. I am also the proud owner of a Beyoncé “I Got Hot Sauce in My Bag” tote bag. The idea of wearing something with the image of, say, Phil Collins or Green Day or Lorde – none of whom have ever featured on my Spotify account – for purely aesthetic reasons is an alien concept. No judgment, but I would feel like I was faking it. And I work in fashion.
Steve Birnbaum, 35, sees both sides. The documentary film-maker set up Band of Shirts, an Instagram account documenting people wearing band T-shirts in New York, two years ago, with captions telling the stories behind their T-shirts. He says he encounters more and more young people “wearing T-shirts but they’re not a fan of the band. I don’t censor [what they say] and feel bad sometimes; they get abuse online for wearing the shirt.” He says he understands why people feel so strongly. “Music is so personal so if someone doesn’t know the reference it feels disrespectful to you,” he says. “If someone is wearing a punk T-shirt but knows nothing about Misfits, it comes down to being a poser. Some people have punk as their lifestyle – no wonder they’re angry.”
Purists will no doubt disapprove of the growing market for luxe takes on the band T-shirt, such as St Luis, the T-shirt brand set up by Patrick Matamoros. He has sold customised band T-shirts – including one worn by Justin Bieber – for $1,500 (£1,158). And Off-White, the label founded by Kanye West’s creative director Virgil Abloh, has a take on a T-shirt for Oasis’s 1993 tour, on sale for £188. Selfridges has Music Matters, a summer-long initiative with instore gigs, merchandise for Bieber’s tour and affordable band T-shirts for Marilyn Manson, Naughty By Nature and the Beatles available, along with four-figure designs by Vetements. “For each of our creative campaigns we take inspiration from what we feel is shaping and moving forward the retail industry,” says Bosse Myhr, the director of menswear, “as well as from the cultural conversations that are important to us, and to our customers.” Myhr says that “rock iconography has been making an impact for a number of seasons … brands have been keen to adopt the visual artistry of music communication.”
Of course, this adoption isn’t entirely new. Rock T-shirts have been worn by non-rock people for years, as a sort of broad brush stroke idea of cool. See Friends’ Rachel Green – hardly a punk fan, surely – in an MC5 T-shirt in 2003. Or the Sex Pistols’ artwork: a Never Mind the Bollocks babygrow can be yours for £16.99 from a website called kidvicious.co.uk, suggesting the lock-up-your-daughter band are now just a punky look worthy of your newborn’s drool. Scarlett Eden, a vintage buyer at Beyond Retro, laughs when I ask her if people buying T-shirts at the store like the bands. “Not at all. One of my friends gets really annoyed about people wearing Ramones T-shirts. It was a way to represent the music that you liked and now it’s just a fashion thing.”
One of Andy Warhol’s most overplayed quotes is “I am a deeply superficial person” – a quip that implies the ability to see the significance in the surface of things. I am reminded of Warhol’s work when thinking about these T-shirts. I don’t imagine those shopping at Topshop are consciously identifying as students of the proto-postmodernism that took Campbell’s Soup out of the supermarket and into the gallery. But the change of context and the free-for-all approach to images and statements perhaps suggests his ripples are still making their way across the pond of pop culture. Deeply superficial people are everywhere in 2017 – the Jenners included.
Band T-shirts for most, then, are about playing the rock chick and the concept of a wild night out in the 70s – that’s why the more distressed the design the better. “This is one of the only items where we’ll still sell it if it’s ripped with loads of holes,” says Eden. “We often find the best ones in the warehouse bins because the really distressed ones would have been thrown away.” In a sense, in a post-truth world, faking it is an outmoded concept. Actually going to the gig or listening to the music isn’t the point. Whether vaguely aligning yourself with feminism by proclaiming “The Future Is Female” or with rock chick vibes in distressed Guns N’ Roses, now you just get the T-shirt.
How the band T-shirt evolved
1968: the first rock T-shirts are produced, made by Bill Graham, the concert promoter who worked with bands such as Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead.
1978: Arturo Vega designs the Ramones logo, with the names of the band’s four members around an image of the eagle similar to the one on the American flag. It is now one of the most recognisable band logos – and T-shirts – in the world.
1979: Iron Maiden’s logo appears on their debut EP, The Soundhouse Tapes. It goes on to feature on T-shirts, and becomes a classic of the band T-shirt genre.
c.1985: Run-DMC begin producing T-shirts with the now-classic logo with red bands. It is so recognisable that there are parodies with everything from “OMG WTF” to “Corbyn” between the red bands.
1991: the Nirvana logo with a smiley face is used on a concert poster. It lives on 26 years later – worn on T-shirts everywhere, by everyone from Romeo Beckham to Fearne Cotton.
1997: Biggie Smalls is fatally shot in Los Angeles. Unofficial tribute T-shirts to the rapper become popular.
2005: Streetwear brand Supreme collaborates with graphic designer Peter Saville on a T-shirt using the design he made in 1979 for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. This design is now almost a meme of the rock look. It is possible to buy leggings with Unknown Pleasures zigzags on them.
2017: Kendall and Kylie Jenner produce T-shirts with images of Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and Ozzy Osbourne with their selfies over the top. Controversy ensues.