When Vintage T-Shirts Aren’t So Vintage

If you’re a collector of vintage t-shirts, you’ve no doubt noticed how the near-gravitational forces of advertising and marketing can twist and warp the very English language itself. While it may not matter when choosing between a barbeque sauce with a “bold new flavor” and one with a “hot new taste,” a slight difference in language can make a huge difference when adding to your vintage t-shirt collection. In fact, knowing the subtle difference between two simple words can save you from making a very big but very common mistake. The word “vintage,” for example, is supposed to refer to something that was actually created in the past, such as a wine of a particular vintage. Or a vintage 1948 Cadillac Sedanette. Or even those Guns N Roses t shirts that have been hanging in your closet since 1988.

“Retro,” on the other hand, refers to something that is made today but is reminiscent of a previous style. Retro is basically a copy or impression of something vintage, but is not actually vintage itself. Newly manufactured Hammer pants are retro. Sideburns printed shirts are retro. Neon-colored leg warmers are retro. Unfortunate, but retro. To put it more simply, if you go to a thrift store and buy some 80s tees that have been well-loved, those are vintage. If you go to Hot Topic and buy a new black t-shirt with a Thundercats logo on it, that’s retro.

Simple, right? So why so much confusion? Well, part of the problem is that, to many young people, “vintage” and “retro” are both just categories of “old.” Is that vintage Star Wars tee cool because the shirt is old, or because Star Wars is old? Are those vintage concert t shirts cool because they came from the actual concert, or because the bands are retro trendy? A high school kid probably doesn’t care and makes no distinction between the two.
Another part of the problem is marketing. Retro t-shirts are all the rage right now. The logos and designs of popular things of the past have become hugely popular again. In fact, they’ve become so popular that many t shirt designers haven’t stopped at just using a Transformers, Pepsi, or Rolling Stones logo, they’ve gone so far as to manufacture the t shirts in a way that makes them look previously worn, well-loved, and quite distressed. The result is retro t-shirts that look like authentic vintage t-shirts but aren’t.

So, what’s a poor collector of vintage tees to do? Well, you can make sure to know the difference between “vintage” and “retro.” You can make sure to read product descriptions carefully, looking for phrases like “licensed t shirts,” which suggest that the rights to the design were purchased but the shirt itself was probably printed recently. And, when in doubt, you can always contact the t shirt shop and ask them directly if their shirts are retro or truly vintage.

Of course, if you’re not a collector or a purist, none of this probably matters to you. Who, other than a collector really wants to buy a 21-year old t-shirt? I mean, unlike a vintage car, some things aren’t really designed to be used 20 years later. Particularly clothes. And, super particularly, inexpensive t-shirts. Maybe a retro tee really is the best of both worlds. Or maybe I’m just being nostalgic. Some part of me wishes the term “vintage” would only be correctly applied to my trips to purchase old vinyl records and 80s t shirts, and not be used to push the “anything old-looking is cool” fad. I guess I’m just old.

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