Like many heroes destined for greatness, the t-shirt had humble beginnings. Originally designed to be worn beneath service uniforms and work shirts, the t-shirt quickly emerged as a stand-alone star thanks to it’s light weight, low cost, and easy-to-clean demeanor. A short time later, a few enterprising advertisers began to experiment with printing logos and slogans on t-shirts, and an industry was born.

Over the decades, trends and fads have come and gone, but a handful of t-shirts designs have transcended from fad to unforgettable. They have become more than a mere t-shirt — they are true American icons. Here’s a list of the 10 most iconic t-shirts of all time.

SD_Top10Shirts

#10: John Lennon’s “New York City” t-shirt.

Photographed in the summer of 1974—at a time when the government was actively attempting to deport him—Lennon stands defiant in his “New York City” tee. Cross-armed and stern, he seems to be proclaiming to the world that he was now from New York … and he wasn’t going anywhere.

Nearly 40 years later, Lennon’s NYC t-shirt has gone on to tour the world, and thousands like it are still produced and sold each year.

#9: Vote for Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite.

Like many artistic masterpieces, Napoleon Dynamite was best appreciated after the viewer delved past its face value. You kinda chuckle the first time you see it, and laugh hysterically by the third viewing. The climatic dance scene, in which ND lays it down to “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai, is nothing short of classic. It’s the type of scene people easily recognize even if they haven’t seen the entire movie.

In terms of cultural impact, Napoleon Dynamite was a pioneer in what has come to be known as “Geek Chic.” Paving the way for mainstream hits like Big Bang Theory and Glee. It helped make it okay for all of us to proudly let our freak flag fly.

The t-shirt makes our list because it is symbolic of everything that made the movie so lovable. It’s somehow out of touch, yet perfectly tuned in; it’s over-the-top ridiculous, and yet true to life; it’s simple and understated, yet impossible to ignore.

#8: The Ramones “Presidential Seal”

Like it or not, truly immortal rock bands are often defined by the fact that their image overshadows their music. The Ramones are, without question, one such animal. Despite meager album sales, legions of musicians credit the Ramones as a principal influence. Spin Magazine even ranked the Ramones as second only to the Beatles in their countdown of the greatest rock bands of all time.

As an icon of the icons, the Ramones’ “Presidential Seal” image is ripe with American aggression, reckless bravado, and copious irreverence. It fits the band perfectly. Today, their status is continually verified by the avalanche of “Seal” t-shirts sold each year. Most people may only know a couple of Ramones tunes, but everyone seems to know this shirt simply embodies cool.

#7: Che Guevara

We aren’t going to lie, we know this selection is going to be more than just a little controversial. Let’s face it though: no matter what your feelings about Guevara are, his stylized image has come to symbolize resistance and rebellion. People either love or loathe this shirt, and that passion is precisely what cements this shirt’s iconic status in our book.

Of course, anyone who has a hard time with the romanticism of a Marxist rebel can take comfort in the fact that his image is now used to sell bikinis, cell phone covers, hats, posters, and yes, truckloads of t-shirts. Therefore fueling an abundance of the very consumer capitalism that Guevara so vehemently despised. And that, Alanis Morissette, is truly ironic.

#6: The Harley Davidson “Bar and Shield” logo

When William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson were designing their first engine—a 116cc design meant for use on a standard bicycle—they couldn’t possibly have imagined what the next 110 years would bring. First came explosive growth, then WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the challenge of globalization, faltering quality, resurgence, and so on. Indeed, Harley Davidson has endured nearly every trial and tribulation imaginable, yet through it all one thing seems to have remained constant: their rabidly loyal fan base.

Simply put, Harley Davidson has transformed from motorcycle manufacturer to lifestyle. The mere presence of their logo evokes a sense of grit, danger, and toughness. It is simultaneously traditional and rebellious, and that sounds like an icon to us.

Harley apparel has obviously branched out far beyond the original “Bar & Shield” logo. In fact, the company rakes in more than $40 million each year just in apparel sales and licensing. That said, the original, white-and-orange print is the most instantly recognizable, and therefor the one that makes our list.

#5: The Hulkamania shirt

Hulk Hogan was THE alpha dog of the WWF (or the WWE as it’s known today) for most of the 80’s and 90’s. No matter what you thought about wrestling’s legitimacy, you knew who the Hulkster was! You knew his signature catchphrases, and his signature moves, and his iconic t-shirt.

It’s difficult to overstate how recognizable this shirt is. It’s also hard to wear it without feeling the urge to split it down the middle with your bare hands. Seriously though, you can’t sell vintage 80’s tees without offering this classic in your lineup. It remains one of the best-selling t-shirts of the era.

Read on for #4 on our list! Oh and also train; say your prayers; eat your vitamins; and believe in yourself.

#4: The Grateful Dead’s “Steal Your Face” T-Shirt

By now you’ve probably noticed that we tend to select shirts that are more about image and culture than sheer popularity. Consider something like the “I heart NY” t-shirt: It’s extremely popular, but it doesn’t conjure up much emotion. We would argue that today’s choice is the polar opposite. It lies on the peripheral of the vast majority’s awareness, but for some, it borders on the religious.

The Steal Your Face design was originally developed as a way to identify the band’s equipment, which was often scattered about sprawling staging areas as it moved from one show to the next. It wasn’t long before the band’s fans began to recognize the insignia, and it became permanently cemented in the Dead’s lexicon when the image adorned the “Steal Your Face” album in 1976.

The Grateful Dead is associated with several well know motifs and images, but this is the quintessential icon, and therefore #4 on our countdown.

#3: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon Prism

There’s not much more that can be added to the volumes of material written about The Dark Side of the Moon. Perhaps the only surprising thing to say about this shirt making our countdown is that there are two shirts that managed to rank above it. After all, The Dark Side of the Moon spent a total of 741 weeks on the Billboard top 200. THAT’S MORE THAN 14 YEARS. The massively broad and timeless appeal of Dark Side sets it apart from nearly all other rock recordings ever made. It will most likely be remembered centuries from now, similarly to how works of Bach and Mozart are still referenced and familiar today. Naturally this iconic image from an even more iconic album makes for one heck of an iconic tee.

#2: The Rolling Stones “Lips and Tongue” logo.

It’s true. When we first conceived of assembling the countdown, this was the first shirt that came to mind. It also was #1 on the list until we had an epiphany while fleshing out the rest of the contenders, but more on that later.

Designed in 1970 by John Pasche–who had only just graduated from the Royal College of Art–it has become one of the most recognizable images inthe world today. It has adorned untold millions of t-shirts in various configurations ranging from the basic, classic version seen here, to diamond-crusted gaudiness that would have made Liberace blush. As an icon, the image spans both generation and genre, and resides in the highest esteem of “cool” in nearly every corner of the civilized world. All-in-all, it’s an icon among icons.

Wondering what could possibly top this tee? You’re about to find out! Read on for the #1 tee in our countdown.

#1: (drumroll please) The Tie-Dye.

We’re realists. We know that equal numbers of you will either applaud, or face-palm at this declaration. Those of you nodding your heads will require no further explanation, but if you’re wondering, “what were they thinking?”… read on.

We might try to defend our choice by telling you that tie-dye’s origins date back to the 5th century. Or, we could say that more tie-dyes have been sold than all other shirt on this list COMBINED. Instead, for us, it really boils down to this: the previous icons on the countdown are like snapshots of our culture. Tie-dyes, on the other hand, are iconic because of the vast history and collective cultural importance they embody. To put it another way: The others represent a person, place, or thing; and tie-dyes represent an era, lifestyle, and mindset.

It’s true that tie-dyes have waxed and waned in popularity since their heyday in the 60’s and 70’s, yet they endure. You’re just as likely to see them at a concert as a middle school field day, or family reunion. And by the looks of it, they will still be relevant for decades (perhaps even centuries) to come, which is something we’re not confident saying about any of the other iconic tees we’ve presented.

So that’s it: 10 ultra-iconic tees submitted for your review! Do you think we got it right? Feel free to comment below. Oh, and if you’re looking for some truly awesome tie-dye, as well as a ton of other cool classic rock apparel, check out collections online at sunpup.com.

~ Steve Thomas
“Classy Dog”