When I graduated from college, I found myself in the throes of a post-academic style crisis. Four years of rolling around a Pennsylvanian campus in the same Mavi flared jeans, super-flat sneakers, hoodies, and the occasional backless “going-out top” (don’t judge: It was the early aughts) had left me in a state of alarm when I returned to my hometown of New York City, where all my friends seemed to have graduated to designer denim, pointy heels, and, well, cooler going-out tops.
I can still remember the moment I decided I wanted to retire my college look. I was 22 years old after all, a serious adult (who lived at home, but never mind that), and my clothes needed to reflect that. But after four years of clothes suited to the quad, the dining hall, and, fine, the fraternity house, I honestly didn’t know where to start.
It was at this time that my sister—who’s four years younger and was just starting college—had gotten very into deconstructing the best vintage T-shirts I’d ever seen (again, early aughts): slashing them, turning them into halter tops, cutting off the sleeves. And I loved it.
I decided that would be my go-to look, until I realized that the old tees I was buying by the dozen from eBay looked just as cool when they weren’t crudely hacked up with a scissor. Maybe even cooler.
I started slowly, wearing vintage tees out at night. I quickly realized that while every single girl at the bar was showing copious amounts of skin, I looked different in my 1982 Bruce Springsteen tour shirt, a great pair of tight jeans, and heels.
That slight separation between me and the spaghetti-strapped swarm made me feel powerful and confident in the best way possible, which is what fashion is supposed to do. It might sound crazy, but I fully credit those dusty old tees for encouraging me to always find small ways to stand out, to go against the grain, to look a little less done than everyone else—points I still value very much today when getting dressed.
From there, I started wearing vintage tees as much as possible—I’d rock a Quiet Riot muscle tee under a blazer to my shiny new newspaper job, an especially soft heather-gray Duran Duran top under a fancy beaded jacket to a friend’s birthday party, a faded black Harley-Davidson gem that I’d found at a local thrift store for $7 with my favorite Paper, Denim, and Cloth jeans on a first date, instead of the typical “sexy” black tank I’d probably have worn a year or so before.
It got to the point where I’d definitely call it a signature look, one that I held on to for many years. I never stopped wearing my old tees, but I started to experiment with different looks, and stopped pulling them out as frequently when they hit a fever pitch among the masses a few years later.
Still, when I was flipping through street-style photos from the recent Paris Fashion Week Spring ’16 shows, a particular image caught my eye: The cute girl wearing high-waist mom jeans, a striped sweater draped around her shoulders, and a very vintage-looking Jolt Cola tee. I had a visceral reaction to the photo, and I wanted to run home and change immediately into a similar vintage Barg’s root beer shirt I have.
Not only did the photo inspire me to start working my collection of tees back into rotation to pair with 2015 pieces like frayed jeans, leather bombers, and cropped kick flares, but it also made me want top shop for brand-new shirts (a slightly unfortunate effect given the compulsive way I tend to consume, but c’est la vie.)
Here, a few of the best vintage tees I currently have saved. I’ll forgive you if you snag them before me.
Vintage ’80s Guys & Dolls Tee, $38; at Etsy
Vintage 1991 Grand Prix Miami Hooters Racing Tee, $36; at Etsy
Vintage 1981 Styx Shirt, $65; at eBay
Vintage ’80s Taos Shirt, $52; at Etsy
Vintage Outlaw National Tee, $65; at Etsy
Rare Vintage 1970s Mr Pibb Graphic Tee, $125; at Etsy