A quick bit of surfing on the internet in search of Retro T-shirts or Vintage Tees websites, will throw up an amazing number of suppliers. Some cheap, some expensive, some with a handful to choose from, others with hundreds. The quality of so-called Retro T-shirt graphics is just as disparate, ranging from the sublime to the yawn-inspiring. So what’s good and what’s bad?

Let’s start with the bad. A fairly common sin of the designer (particularly one more familiar with a keyboard than a brush) and T-shirt manufacturers, is sloth. Some simply “lift” an image that catches their eye from an old archive somewhere, reduce it to a fraction of the original size, and plop it on the front of a T-shirt blank. An easy to do, lazy option – not really in the spirit of Retro.

They’ve forgotten that the pure essence gym clothes men of Retro-art (or Vintage style) stems from the kind of basic printing presses available at the time. The artwork had to be bold and simple with flat strong colours. Most importantly, they were created with the actual final printed size in mind. Reducing an old poster, or a giant highway billboard from the 1940’s down to T-shirt size, is a bit like putting the Last Supper on a postage stamp.
So what’s good? Authenticity – simple as that. If a designer wants to capture that retro feel or vintage look, they have to think like an artist from that era and prepare the artwork as if it was going to be printed on an antique printing press. If they are going to be silk-screening the T-shirts, (and for real authenticity they should really only use this method of printing) then this mindset should be second-nature anyway. Whether the graphic is based on an original image from the past or modern graphic art interpreted in the Retro style, it needs to be bold and simple, and should be drawn the same size as the final printed size of the image.

Retro Tees and Vintage T-shirts have experienced a resurgence of popularity in the last 10 years. No surprise really, it’s a wonderful style of art that helped shape the dreams and aspirations of our parents and grandparents. It would be a real shame if we stop exploring it’s potential in the creation of original artwork, and merely pay it lip-service by employing a reducing photocopier and heat transfer machine.

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