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Core Memories Unlocked!

October 2023

Top 5 T-Shirt Trends of the 70s, 80s and 90s 

Believe it or not, t-shirts are very new to the fashion scene! I mean, relative to how long we (i.e. homo sapiens) have been wearing clothes, tees are still kinda brand new! When first introduced they were considered underwear, as in an undergarment! In this day in age, it’s hard to imagine life without the classic tees we wear as full-on outerwear (weather permitting).

U.S. Navy wearing t-shirts as part of their uniform

The t-shirt was first manufactured during the Spanish American War in the late 19th- early 20th century, as standard issue underwear for the U.S. Navy. It was not until the 1910s that tees became available to civilians. During this time, the only way you might glimpse a tee out in public was during the summer when laborers would cut their jumpsuits in half to beat the heat. It was not until the 1950s when a couple movie stars wore them as outerwear and made them socially acceptable.

Marlon Brando in t-shirt

It was Marlon Brando and James Dean that made t-shirts a symbol of masculinity and easy fashion. As tees grew and expanded in use, women started wearing them in the 1960s and 70s. It was around this time that t-shirts started to become what we know today as they were colored and printed on to reflect a myriad of styles, opinions, and personalities.

Though I can’t imagine a world without t-shirts, there are some trends that have rightfully come and gone throughout the years. Here’s our Core Memories Unlocked top 5 t-shirt trends of the 70s, 80s, and 90s!

5. Puff Paint

Puff-painted t-shirts

Puff painting was one of our favorite crafts in the 80s and early 90s. Couldn’t find a t-shirt you wanted? No problem! You could make it yourself and, what’s even better, is the words stood off the tee! All you needed was some blank t-shirts and some tiny puff paint tubes. Of course, the shirt and the paints had to be neon, or you weren’t doing it right. They tried to bring this trend back in the early 2000s, but no one did this trend like the 80s and early 90s tee shirt lovers. The movement quickly died back again and hasn’t made a significant reappearance since then. Do we think it’s done, or should we bring it back again?

4. Spray Paint

"Chet" spray painted t-shirt

Spray paint was huge in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, born as a form of expression during the protests of the Vietnam War.  As the love for this form of expression grew, the use of t-shirts was also growing, so it was only a matter of time until we combined the two. Like puff painting and tie-dying, this could be a fun at home project! However, you were less likely to get a trendy statement tee and more likely to get a brown-ish mess if you are anything like me. Whether you left it to the professionals or DIY-ed it, spray painted tees were a defining trend for all 80s and 90s rocker kids.

3. Color Changing

Kids wearing color changing t-shirts

As a kid, color changing tees were the absolute coolest t-shirt to own. Hypercolor and other brands of the 80s and 90s brought us tees whose color would change with heat. If you were in colder months, you might walk around with a blow-dryer or take a permanent spot next to the radiator to get the effect you wanted. Or, if you were in Texas, like I was, you might've been convinced your tee was only the darker/warmer temp unless you exposed it to an ice cube. Though their heat changing ability was lost over time, this trend will always hold a place in our hearts.

2. Baby tees/crop tops

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wearing crop top

While baby tees or crop tops are making a huge comeback today, they first made their appearance in the 70s. Then, you would mostly see them amongst the neon tights, headbands, and unitards of the workout scene. Though cropped tops were usually seen on the gym bros who were less into the spandex. Baby tees didn’t get real traction as a trend until the 90s, with TV shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends, as well as pop stars, making them popular. Since then, cropped tops have made a comeback in the 2020s. It really makes us feel like trendsetters, doesn't it?

1. Tie-dye

Jerry Garcia wearing Tie-dye

Tie-dye is perhaps the trend with the most longevity on this list. It first became popular in the 1960s and, while it may have had its ups and downs throughout the years, is still pretty popular. Some attribute this popularity to Jerry Garica of Grateful Dead, and others the hippie and peace movement as a whole. Regardless, the trend caught on and has made a lasting impression. Whether you are making your own at home with lots of rubber bands, stained fingers, and accidentally dyed white socks in your laundry, or buying them in a pattern that actually worked out, many of us rocked those classic tie-dyed tees in our day.


T-shirts may be timeless classics, but they will always have their trends. All of them are unique in origin and most colorful in style. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the craftier the tee, the better. While they might try to bring them back again, we will always know we did it best.

- Maddy


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