Dating vintage tees
To call a piece of clothing vintage technically means that it’s at least 20+ years old. But once genuine vintage tees got popular and extremely profitable, modern manufacturers began producing and selling knockoffs of these tees. Whether they’re licensed or not isn’t the big deal for me; I HATE them being called vintage when they really aren't vintage because it confuses people. So lets talk about how to know whether you are looking at a genuine vintage tee or a modern vintage-looking tee.
Is it plausible or impossible
Begin with the obvious first- has the band or brand been around long enough? Google or other search engines, Wikipedia etc are your friends. Remember what I said about 20 years and older than this year being genuinely TRUE vintage.
Next look at the actual tee shirt itself. Look for the maker’s brand name on the label inside the tee or signs that one was ripped out. Brand labels have changed over the decades. Defunkd is a site that I found helpful- they have a quick overview of major vintage t-shirt brands thru several decades. Another source of label info is the Vintage fashion Guild label resource. It may not apply with your tee but it’s a well-done and interesting read if you’re also interested in vintage fashion.
If your tee shirt label has a RN or WPL number you may be able to find info at the US FTC database. If your number is listed there you should see a date the number/brand was established and/or an end date. I was having a terrible time with what looked like a genuine vintage Wu Tang tee. I searched tee images till I was exhausted (Google showed me WuTang merch for a year after my search, lol). I finally remembered to check the FTC/USPTO data base of registration numbers because one was on the tee. It turns out the tee isn’t vintage- in fact it’s less than a year old, but I had a hard time finding that out. (Boy did I feel stupid lol and it shows how convincing reproductions can look). Gotta keep at the research until you know for sure!
Look for clues from the image details
Look for a copyright date on or next to the image front and/or back. The numbers are usually tiny and hard to read. I’m writing this in 2021 so I'm looking for a date of 2001 or earlier; since TRUE VINTAGE is at least 20 years old. The copyright date isn’t 100% accurate because the image may have been around longer and re-licensed. Use that date along with other visible clues to be sure. (If you’re lucky the numbers will still be readable after decades of washing).
Look for a ‘handle with care’ label regarding washing the older heat set transfer. Some images were applied with a heat press to the fabric and got brittle, sticky or otherwise damaged if washed and dried wrong. Older screen printed graphics often had a more “textured” feel to them; newer printing techniques are usually smoother and bond more with the fabric instead of sitting on the surface of the fabric.
Label printed on the tee fabric
T-shirts DID NOT have brand name, fiber content and garment care etc PRINTED INSIDE the tee on the back of the neck until approx. 2010-ish. Woven or printed labels were used. Sometimes you can see threads left behind when annoying labels were pulled or cut out. In that case you’ll have to look for other clues.
Even crappy quality tees were rarely cut crooked or off-grain. Knitted AND woven fabric is created with horizontal AND vertical threads. Tees weren’t cut diagonally or just plain wonky because they were stretch fabric and didn’t need the extra stretch. I think modern t-shirts are cut every-which-way to save fabric. Crooked tees are a pet peeve of mine!
Cultural or topical references
If the graphic is topical, does the date & other clues make sense to be true vintage?? I doubt that anybody is reprinting advertising tees like Bud Light’s Spuds McKenzie dog, Wendy’s ‘Where’s The Beef’, or Taco Bell’s Chihuahua or Bullwinkle promo t-shirts. This Dr Pepper tee is a good example. There wasn’t a date on the tee itself but the era of the ad campaign gives an approx. date for the tee as the early 1980s. A little internet research is all it took to find out.
Vintage bootleg tees
I don’t really know what to say about bootleg tees- those are tees that show licensed bands, cartoon characters images without being properly licensed (paying $$ to the owner of the copyright). Sold outside concert venues or sports stadiums, at flea markets etc,; they were the counterfeit knock-off product of their day. So does being vintage make ‘em legal or ethical? I sold a 90s Bart Simpson-Raiders-Adidas crossover tee a few years ago… it was too cool not to sell but I ended up without the shirt or the money because of a shipping glitch… maybe that was karma, lol.
And in the end...
Just because it’s not a true vintage doesn’t make it bad. I’m not saying that reproduction t-shirts are evil… just don’t call them vintage IF THEY’RE NOT REALLY at least 20 years old. I wear a reproduction 1975 Led Zeppelin tour tee; I caught a show that tour but was too broke at the time to afford a concert ticket, pay travel etc AND buy a tee. Wish I had! (BTW, it was an awesome show!) So in the end... buy what you like but know what you're really buying!