A few years ago I gave up drink and drugs and had to find a new way to waste all my money, so I started collecting old t-shirts.
I like old t-shirts because they’ve got a history, and half their history you have to guess. Finding out info about the shirts you end up with is a fun adventure – but there are several questions you won't get to the bottom of. Like who owned this before? How did it end up in their hands? And why’s there a weird burn on the neckline? You’ll never know. It's fun to think about that kind of stuff when you’re wearing them.
In the ten years I've been buying them, I've bought shirts from a bunch of places: lots from thrift stores in the US, plenty of eBay and Depop action, swaps with other nerds and stuff from weird little showrooms. Once I bought a bunch of shirts off a collector at this really huge house in LA. I thought it was weird because I thought he flipped t-shirts for a living, but it turned out he was also a silent partner in a well known e-cigarette company.
Some people are into very expensive grail shirts (90s My Bloody Valentine shirts are worth like £1,500, FYI) but I’m cheap so I just like picking up weird stuff, regardless of sought-after-ness.
Since everyone’s locked down and you’re not supposed to go outside, I’ve got into the spirit and taken a photo of every shirt I’ve worn in the past three weeks of quarantine and written a little bit about each one. It makes a change from the endless barrage of grim statistics and horrible vibes on your news feed, right?
TIE DYE SLAYER
Metal t-shirts that aren’t black are really cool. It’s a sign of confidence in your own heaviness. The band is saying, "We don’t need to be spooky, our reputation fully precedes us. Enjoy this turquoise tie dye." Plus, Undisputed Attitude is a great record. It's a load of punk covers played with more precision than the originals that got loads of spotty little rockers like me into cool bands back in 1996.
PADDY MURPHY, THE FRAT LEGEND
There are various stories online about Paddy Murphy, but the broad gist of it is something like: he was the only university-educated member of Al Capone’s entourage and he happened to be a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. The SAE guys are pretty proud of that to this day, as I understand it.
THE GRATEFUL DEAD, AN EXPLAINER
Grateful Dead t-shirts are a whole subsection of t-shirt collection unto themselves and can fetch a ton of money. This isn't a particularly fancy one, but it certainly explains who and what the Grateful Dead are in very clear terms. How did they get through so many black labradors?!
CYPRESS HILL DOING THEIR BIT
I love the optimistic premise of this shirt – which is that some Republican lawmaker in 1993 would see the delinquent mallrat wearing this in his suburban town and think, 'this kid in baggy pants cutting school and loitering outside Blockbuster sure has some cogent points to make regarding marijuana policy!' and change the law.
A GRATEFUL DEAD/FRAT TOOFER
Alpha Xi Delta is a women’s fraternity, and according to their official site, they “inspire women to realize their potential by providing opportunities for Sisterhood, leadership, knowledge and service.” No mention of inspiring women to be chill Grateful Dead bootleggers on the site, but I guess they do that too.
BL’AST ARE COOL
Bl’ast are sick because they played like old Black Flag after Black Flag slowed everything down and stopped being as fun. Sound aside, this is the best artwork and It's In My Blood is the best name for an album ever – it send chills down your spine as an image/text combo and therefore makes the perfect t-shirt. In 2013, Dave Grohl and Southern Lord re-released a remastered version of the record (just called Blood!) with new artwork. I get there was probably some copyright thing that prevented them using the old artwork, but it’s sad that they had to change it nevertheless.
EXTREME NOISE TERROR – GREAT NAME, GREAT SHIRT
Grindcore was a genre definitely invented with t-shirts in mind. Why call your band Extreme Noise Terror if you’re not putting that very, very fun combo of words on a t-shirt for kids to wear and draw a super clear line in the sand about what they stood for?
THE CLASS OF 1950
Everyone who this shirt was meant for is pushing 90 now. This is what I found out about Manual Arts High School: when it was founded in 1910, it was the third ever high school in LA, and was located in a beanfield. Famous alumni include the artist Philip Guston and serial killer John Floyd Thomas Jr, who would’ve been at the school in 1950 (although wouldn’t graduate for another couple of years). Are you starting to see why t-shirts are fun?
THE "NEW" MISFITS ARE NOT NEW
“New” Misfits are older than “old” Misfits were when “new” Misfits came out. Now “old” Misfits are back together and we’re never going to hear “new” Misfits songs live again. Getting weird and snooty about punk bands is the lowest form of conversation though – people like what they like, who cares?
BART SIMPSON/PORTLAND FIREFIGHTERS
Some bootleg Bart action from a firehouse in Portland! I don’t know which Portland though. Bootleg Barts were everywhere in the 90s and there are a ton of Instagram accounts dedicated to them. It’s a fun world to explore – don’t say you haven’t got the time!
This is an Albert Hoffman tribute shirt that makes going through airports really difficult. Lesson learned – let’s move on.
REM FEEL VERY 90s
The 90s only feel more special than any other decade right now because people who were teenagers then are in charge of culture now. Thirty-eight-year-old creative directors and senior stylists spent their teens watching Blind skateboards film Video Days and going to Lollapalooza, and that’s why everything looks the way it does right now. It’s going to be weird looking back wistfully at 2020 in 2040.
OZZFEST 2001, A HELL OF A DAY OUT
What a time it was to be alive. Who are Union Underground and why are they billed just under Black Sabbath? Imagine the new and interesting strains of COVID-19 you’d find in a mid-summer Ozzfest moshpit today.
GREEN DAY WERE COOL
I think the 90s are now far enough away that we can all admit that Green Day were pretty cool back then. My feeling is they blew it when they started wearing matching outfits onstage in the 00s. I preferred when they wore gas station shirts and brown Dickies.
MCA UNIVERSAL HOME VIDEO
Imagine doing lockdown in 2001 with just your collection of VHS tapes: three Friends videos with three episodes from season five on each tape, a copy of Wild Things totally worn out over *that* scene, an Eddie Izzard stand up special, a 411 Video Magazine you’ve seen 800 times and the South Park Movie. Fucking awful. Thank god for streaming in this trying time, eh?
SUICIDAL TENDENCIES' MINDLESS DESTRUCTION
A lot of these metal and punk shirts are exciting because they’re really about signalling a very base and simple desire to behave badly for no real reason. Why would anyone want to burn the Mona Lisa? This shirt is from the European tour of Suicidal Tendencies' Art of Rebellion record in 1992 and the front of this shirt is the cover of the record.
JOHN DEERE'S STRONG TRACTOR MERCH
There's no doubt the US has its problems, but they can make the shit out of tractors and t-shirts. Can you imagine a British company like Morris Minor producing a t-shirt that looked like wrestling merchandise? Maybe that’s where we’ve been going wrong as a nation.
UGLY KID JOE: TEEN ANGELS
As Ugly They Wanna Be was Ugly Kid Joe’s 1991 EP. It’s got "Everything About You" on it, which is the purest possible distilled essence of what it truly means to be a teenage boy. Very cool.
Here’s a little motivational interlude from the Connecticut College basketball team. Good vibes only over here guys! You only live once!
A VERY THRASHED OFFSPRING SHIRT
In the world of vintage t-shirts, there’s a level of wear that seems to add value: a nice sun fade, a tasteful hash burn hole on the neckline or a delicately frayed hem all tell a nice story of hearty wear and a whole other life lived in a shirt before it reached you. But there’s a limit to that, and having the armpits completely blown out makes this 1994 Australian tour shirt completely worthless.
MY FIRST EVER SHIRT: THE LEVELLERS
I got this longsleeve on the 5th of October, 1996 at the Reading Rivermead Centre. I went to see the Levellers with my friend Alex and two adult chaperones (slightly younger friends of her parents). It was the first real show I ever went to and it was super fun. I’m amazed this shirt is in such good condition and that I didn’t push my thumbs through the cuffs to look extra sulky and hormonal, as was the style at the time.
SEPULTRA: FOR OLDER BROTHERS
I was maybe two years too young for Sepultura in the 90s – they were a real "heavy metal older brother" band. This shirt makes me think about all the terrifying 17 year olds I met when I was 14. Their hair was lank, their moods swung considerably and their cars had bongs under the front passenger seat. Refuse! Resist!
CHILL OUT OR DIE!
Chill Out Or Die was a 1993 ambient compilation that came out on Rising High Records. It was run by a guy called Casper Pound, who sadly died in 2004 at just 33 years old. The CGI artwork is cool and must have looked siiiiick in 1993, and it’s fun that he put all the text in French. The rest of the stuff on his label was at the harder end of techno and gabber – it’s worth getting into a Discogs spiral with it. Also: Chill Out Or Die is a reasonably good mantra to live by, and I guess pretty relevant right now.
T-shirts are fun!
Bob Foster posts t-shirts on his stories and proper photos on his Instagram feed here. He recently helped edit Time On Our Hands, a book featuring new and unseen work from 40 UK photographers and artists like Jeremy Deller, Alex De Mora, Lucian Clarke, Rollo Jackson, Leo Leigh and many more. All proceeds from sales of the book go to the RCN Foundation Covid-19 Support Fund, which provides practical and psychological support for nurses and frontline health care staff during the crisis. Find out more and grab a copy here .