The Goods: Vintage Concert T-Shirts

Buffalo Exchange Haight Street vintage tees header image.

By Sydni Budelier, Buffalo Exchange San Francisco (Haight St.)

Leave it to our loyal Haight Street customers to sell us some of the most coveted and collectable items in fashion. While vintage band tees are no new trend, they remain sought-after pieces by devoted music fans and vintage T-shirt junkies. When we recently purchased a customer’s collection of 80s and 90s concert tees, our buyers carefully gauged their desirability and knew they would be quick sellers.

A variety of factors make vintage concert tees desirable. Authenticity, rarity, condition, and sentimental value can impact customer allure. Reprints of novelty band tees are easy to find and are readily available through hundreds of retailers, but genuine concert tees—the shirts once sold at major shows and tours—are far more limited.

Talented buyers can easily decipher an authentic concert tee from a reprint by knowing what to look for. A good place to start with any vintage tee is the tag. Labels such as Screen Stars, Springford, Fantasy, Sportswear, Touch of Gold and Ched are good indicators of age, because they went out of production by the mid-90s. Other companies like Hanes and Fruit of the Loom changed their label designs between the 80s and 90s, so certain designs can reveal when a T-shirt was produced. Tags that specify a 50/50 poly-cotton blend are more likely to be vintage as well, especially since the 100% cotton trend only recently gained traction.

Buffalo Exchange Haight St. vintage tees
1990s Iron Maiden, 1990s Slayer, and 1980s Megadeth

After examining the tag, we look for clear copyright printing and date subscripts under the graphic. This indicates the year the tour took place and legitimizes the item as a genuine piece of memorabilia. High-resolution graphics and tour dates listed on the back of the shirt can also add value. It’s important to remember that a band’s popularity and approach to T-shirt design can impact the rarity of merchandise. For example, Iron Maiden often printed shirts that were customized for each country, state, and city they played. There is more variety among their T-shirts, but less of each design, because their shirts were printed in concentrated batches. Since some designs are harder to find than others, collectors go crazy over particular versions.

Buffalo Exchange Haight St. vintage tees 2
1994 Pink Floyd North American Tour (front)

Buffalo Exchange Haight St. vintage tees 3
1994 Pink Floyd North American Tour (back)

Customers have varying opinions of what condition of shirt is most desirable. Some prefer a shirt that’s clearly been rocked out in. They value the experience previous wearers of the shirt had before it came into their possession. Worn-thin material, natural distressing, DIY cutoff sleeves, and even light staining are all signifiers of a shirt long-loved, and these traits give authentic concert tees their nostalgic charm. Other collectors prefer less wear and aim to preserve their concert tees for as long as possible without wearing them.

Buffalo Exchange Haight St. vintage tees 11980s The Cure, 1980s Siouxsie Sioux, and 1990s Slayer

Most customers of vintage band and concert tees are either rabid fans of the music, or appreciate the history and meaning behind the band tee as a fashion statement. Either way, wearing them indicates a person’s place in a particular community. In Haight Ashbury, such concert T-shirts are rooted in our city’s past. The counter-culture that thrived here in the 60s saw an emergence of social change and self-expression through clothing choice, and people wore clothing emblematic of their social views and cultural values. This included wearing T-shirts that portrayed artists whose music demonstrated the social movement of the era.

Buffalo Exchange Haight St. vintage tees 4
1992 Metallica and Guns N’ Roses

San Francisco-based concert promoter, Bill Graham, was one of the first to recognize the profitability of T-shirts endorsing West Coast artists like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The popularization of the concert tee as a must-have item can be traced back to his promotional efforts, and artists have since relied on this combination of fashion, art, and marketing to make money at shows and sustain a loyal community of promoters. Today, influential rock ‘n’ roll and thrash metal bands like Pink Floyd, The Cure, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Slayer, and Megadeth still have undying followings and their tour shirts are cherished by fans.

Our buyers were ecstatic to be the recipients of such treasured merchandise. And we were even happier when our customers responded with enthusiasm too. In a week’s time most of these tees have found homes in the closets and collections of our customers. We are eager to replenish our stock, but in the meantime we’ll continue to buy the best of men’s and women’s fashion—all the while pining for our next vintage band tee fix.