“Influential… shirts? Hold on a second; they’re just t-shirts!”
T-shirts have long since been misunderstood as “lazy person fashion” (although we totally disagree). As Devil Wears Prada was quick to explain, t-shirts (no matter how small) are part of fashion and self-expression.
Over the decades, there have been some exceptionally influential and important t-shirts, and those shirts have influenced OTHER shirt designs in the decades since. Maybe you’ve seen a few of these around, and if we had to guess, you’ve probably owned a couple as well. These designs resulted from political movements, major culture shifts, or just crazy good marketing. Here are our 10 most popular t-shirt designs and why we think they’ve stuck around for so long:
I <3 NY
Decades after this design went live in 1976, it’s still just as popular as ever. Sure, native New Yorkers aren’t wearing the shirts so much, but it’s a right of passage for any tourist to grab one of these shirts their first time in the Big Apple. Created by Milton Glaser, the logo was originally drawn in the back of a taxi with red crayon and lives in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Its simple design was quickly reproduced by other brands and companies. Case in point: nearly every state has made some knock-off of this original design. Your state probably has if you do a quick Google search!
As a Central Florida-based company, maybe we’re biased in how often we see the Big Cheese on shirts. However, the standard full-body Mickey Mouse shirt has been worn by huge celebrities and recreated tons of different ways. The first shirt was born in the 40s as part of Disney’s marketing campaign for the character. As Mickey grew in popularity, so did his shirt!
Vote for Pedro
Ah, Napoleon Dynamite — the movie that encouraged every middle schooler in 2004 to ask about tater tots. This cult classic gave pop culture one of its most famous shirts: Vote for Pedro. We think Vote for Pedro works as a design because of its handmade simplicity; it’s earnest and looks like Napoleon whipped it up in a few minutes after a trip to the craft store. For years after the movie came out, the design was adjusted for inside jokes, group names, and even memed for other politicians.
Keep Calm and Carry On
This one truly baffles us. “Keep Calm and Carry On” was a British phrase of endurance and encouragement during WWII, but the shirt design we know today was a very American take on the phrase. Leave it to America’s obsession with the monarchy, Downton Abbey, or British celebs, but this design was everywhere. Since its debut, the phrase has been reshaped to fit other groups of people; one of our favorites is “I Can’t Keep Calm, I Have Anxiety.”
The Helvetica list of names
These shirts were perfect for nerds in the know. We’re not entirely sure which fandom started this design, but when the trend struck, it struck HARD. It sticks around because it’s the perfect way to bond a group of people over inside jokes or insider information that only they would know.
(caption: If you haven’t seen Hamilton the musical, you might not get this shirt! Musical theater nerds, unite!)
*cue the swelling music* This is impactful because it’s one of the best logo designs of all time for one of the best movies of all time. The design doesn’t just work because of Rexy; the colors contrast nicely and the font is uniquely identifiable to the film. This is one we’ve seen recreated plenty of times by groups looking to put a fun twist on their shirts.
This shirt became enormously popular among teens in the early 2000s, but we doubt any of them were certified lifeguards. The simple design has been spiced up by other groups. We’ve seen our fair share of “Jesus is my Lifeguard” designs as well!
Look, we’re not even going to drop recent examples into this blog because we know you’ve already probably got a few designs in your head. (Plus, politicians come and go with so many logos that we couldn’t keep up if we tried.) We can safely say, however, that one of the most popular vintage political designs we’ve seen on shirts is the Reagan/Bush ‘84 logo. Regardless of your political affiliation, you can’t deny that that design became a template for both political parties in the decades since 1984.
You don’t have to have heard a single Rolling Stones song to know what shirt this is. (Although, if you’ve never listened to Mick Jagger, what are you waiting for?!) This famous shirt was used as part of the Stones’ merch in the 70s and paid homage to Jagger’s popular pout and tongue-out thing he’d do. This shirt has since transcended the band, still being worn by people around the world.
Graphic designer Stephanie Nash created one of the most popular logos ever when she created the logo for rappers Run DMC. The logo first appeared on the single for their 1986 album and became ingrained in popular culture when it transitioned into concert tees. Again, this is a logo we’ve seen everyone from running clubs to youth groups use as a jumping-off-point for design. It’s clean, it’s bold, and it’s big. What more could you want?
As corny as it sounds, we know shirts have the power to make a lasting impression on culture. (Yes, we’re biased because we’re in the biz, but we also believe in what we do!) Even if your shirt isn’t going to become the next big thing, it can still hold memories for your group for years to come! Connect with us on how we can help bring your design to life. Call us at 800-242-9166 or get a quote online.