Looking for a vintage tee — but not the pit-stained discard someone’s parents hauled to the local thrift shop after they left home?
Beyond timeless thrifted Harley-Davidson or retro rock band T-shirts — which have long been considered cool — a nostalgia for the ’90s is fueling a new demand for vintage duds. Shirts emblazoned with Looney Tunes illustrations and Backstreet Boys tour gear (priced anywhere from $45 to $150) are flying off the shelves, according to vintage fashion experts. But it’s ’90s hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues shirts — featuring the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac Shakur and Sade — that are the most in demand right now.
One Wu-Tang tee, for instance — which features the group’s bold yellow W logo and is no longer in original production — is now $650 at Metropolis Vintage in the East Village.
Authentic music merch tends to be priced higher. “People have a much deeper connection to music shirts,” says Stephen Voland, 25, a manager at Metropolis. “Music and fashion always go hand in hand.”
But looking cool — and relevant — takes more than visiting a local vintage shop and quickly grabbing the first tee you see. There are several strategies to ensure a pre-loved T-shirt is worth the dough, such as finding authentic original details and examining its structural integrity.
Whether you’re budget is $10 or $100, it’s an effort that pays off.
A spot-on choice “makes you stand out immediately,” says Voland.
Read on for expert tips to help you separate the cheap pieces from the truly cool throwbacks.
Figure out its age
T-shirts haven’t always been made the same way, or with the same materials. First things first, give the shirt a feel and check to see if the tags indicate what kind of fabric it is.
The ’90s brought an onset of 100-percent heavyweight cotton tees, which feel thick and have a boxy, “baggier silhouette,” says Callan Clendenin, a manager at Beacon’s Closet in Greenpoint.
If you’re looking for something from the ’70s or the ’80s, you’ll want to make sure the shirt was made with a 50-50 blend of cotton and polyester. Not only will these fabrics feel softer, but they’ll also generally be more threadbare, as washes through the years have likely dissolved the cotton and left the polyester behind.
“[Those] are the ones that will be buttery and see-through,” says Voland. The 100-percent cotton shirts, he adds, will see their colors fade with age and washes.
Then take a peek at the seams on the bottom and the shoulders. If those are all stitched with a single seam, that means it’s a genuine shirt from the ’70s or the ’80s. Between the late ’80s and early ’90s, those areas got double-stitched for greater durability. Only in the 2000s did manufacturers add seams down the sides of the torso; if you see those, it’s not a genuine vintage garment.
It may seem tedious, but this process shouldn’t take long.
“If you give it five minutes, you’re probably set,” says Justin Goellner, 40, a store manager at the Buffalo Exchange in Chelsea.
Embrace its flaws, but be vigilant
“Imperfect is better,” says Voland of what gives a vintage tee an It factor. “It just has to be perfect for you.”
Indeed, an older piece might have edge to it. That can mean small holes, cracked graphics, even a stretched collar. It shows attitude.
“I think beat-up shirts have a home,” says Goellner. “Holes, unless they seem like they’re going to lead to total destruction, are good for me.”
So while you might think twice if a shirt shows massive seam tears, it could still be worth it if you feel a connection — Goellner adds that you can always make modifications, like cutting the sleeves off to wear as a tank.
If you’re looking for a collectible or to re-sell a shirt yourself, however, you’ll have to find something in near-perfect shape.
The main thing to keep an eye out for is “dry rot,” says Goellner, which happens when a fabric is exposed to moisture, doesn’t dry fully and leads to a buildup of mold, which deteriorates the fabric to the texture of wet paper.
“If you go to stretch [the fabric], it would literally tear it,” says Goellner.
Break it in with care
If you want your tee to look effortlessly worn, throw it in the machine with the rest of your clothes.
“I think it’s fine to wash it and dry it,” says Voland. “It adds character.”
If you’re going for an extra broken-in look, soak it in OxiClean before washing.
“[That] definitely breaks down the fibers pretty quickly,” says Goellner.
For tees that are already significantly faded, consider hand-washing with a detergent for delicates — such as Woolite — and leaving it to air dry.
As Clendenin explains, it isn’t so much the act of washing that wears away older tees as it is the drying process: “Commercial dryers at laundromats are too hot.” Plus, going from a cold-water wash to a hot dryer “can cause the graphics to crack,” he says.
By Zachary Kussin