For us here at Fifth Column, the story of customising clothes began over forty years ago in London. Printing t-shirts for punk bands during the creative explosion of the Seventies when indie music and custom merchandise formed a relationship that endures to this day. Yeah, we’ve been around a good long while. And we’re still going strong, printing and embroidering custom tee shirts and plenty more besides. But screen printed t-shirts, the origins of the custom tee, stretches way back beyond our humble beginnings in Kilburn.
Nowadays, screen printed t-shirts are everywhere. They’ve become an incredibly popular article of clothing and the popularity only seems to grow. Their appeal and variety spans the spectrum. Expensive, exclusive fashion to cheap and cheerful, practical workwear. You see them on every street and in every walk of life. The printed t-shirt is a garment worn by all of us, irrespective of age or social grouping. Given all of that, we thought it would be interesting to take a brief look at the history of their popularity and chart the rise of custom tees in modern society.
What does Screen Printed Mean?
Before going too much further, it might be useful to clearly define what we mean by the term. Screen printing is a method of transferring ink to a surface to create a design. The ink is pushed through a mesh or stencil. The design is achieved by blocking selected areas of the stencil so that no liquid touches those sections of the material being printed. With screenprinting, only one colour can be applied at a time which means for a multi coloured image, we would require a screen for each colour in the design. Whilst the technique has developed over time, the basic process remains much as it was in the past.
A Brief History of Screen Printing.
Technical development in Europe gathered pace during the first half of the Twentieth century. This experimentation with various technical aspects of the screen printing process would eventually lead to the technique becoming a commercially viable method. More than that, something that was widely accessible.
The versatility of screenprinting is ultimately what made it so widespread. The basic materials were relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire. Not really any great surprise that it became popular with underground movements and sub-cultures. Or that their aesthetic in turn grew to influence mainstream design.
The Rise of Screen Printed T-Shirts
Screen printed t-shirts really start to make their presence felt in the 1950s. The garment that started out as a simple undershirt to be worn under military uniforms takes a more prominent role in the years following World War II. Civilians start wearing them as standalone tops and it’s not long before the idea of custom printed t-shirts emerges. Screen printing had taken root in the United States during the 1930s and by the Fifties, companies in Miami are printing promotional t-shirts with the names of resorts and local attractions. Screen printing takes a huge leap in the Sixties when it becomes synonymous with the Pop Art movement. Works by artists such as Andy Warhol not only publicise screen printing, they open it to a mass market.
This heightened public awareness coincides with advancements in the machinery and processes involved in screen printing the shirts. Michael Vasilantone, an American entrepreneur and artist, invented the first rotary multi-colour garment screen printing machine. There’s no looking back after that point. The resultant boom in printed t-shirts isn’t a passing fad, the custom tee is all set to become an industry in its own right. By the Seventies, major brands like Coca-Cola and Disney are printing t-shirts with their logo or message and using them as walking advertisements. Movies and TV get in on the act and pretty soon the screen printed t-shirt is part of everyday life.
When you think about it, the reason is clear to see. The custom t-shirt is a uniquely flexible form of merchandise. The possibilities and applications are endless. Affordable enough to be a truly democratic marketing vehicle or simply a choice that reflects your personal views or affiliations. An essential component of modern commerce, yet not the sole province of corporate entities. Printed t-shirts work for just about everyone. Small business logos and band icons both look great on them, but so do political statements and humorous cartoons. No event is complete without the option to buy one and what better way to support a charity you cherish than by wearing their shirt.
The popularity of personalised t-shirts shows no sign of flagging. Quite the opposite, the appeal of custom apparel seems to be on an upward curve. Whether it be schools and educational establishments, leisure wear or workplace, organised events or personal crusade, the custom top is in the mix. It’s fair to say that, in recent years, the screen printed t-shirt has come of age. We’re all less formal and the once ‘casual’ t-shirt is increasingly acceptable in any setting. Printing methods continue to evolve alongside social attitudes. Reputable printing and embroidery firms operate in ways that are kind to the environment and offer clothing choices which are both sustainable and eco-friendly. The printed tee is here to stay!