If you're new to collecting vintage, gather some references. Steve Coe of Worn Free—an online shop that sells both licensed band tee reproductions and real-deal vintage—recommends checking out the My Freedamn! series by photographer and fashion historian Rin Tanaka. The books delve deep into American subcultures (surfers, skaters, bikers) and meticulously chronicle their uniforms—from motorcycle jackets to bowling jerseys. Memorize those photos because you're going to want to remember what lived-in, stretched-out, vintage tees actually look like when you start shopping.
Map Out Your Local Retirement Communities
Seriously. "There are some great thrift stores in Waikiki. You can fill up a trash bag for $20," Coe says. "If you think about Hawaii, a lot of people go there to retire, so they're selling things that they've had for years and years—lots of tees, lots of sportswear, lots of gold. It's the same in Miami and other parts of Florida. Think about the area you're in."
Get Hands On
When it comes to separating the real vintage tees from the fakes, it's all about texture. Feel the fabric: modern tees are much thicker than their '70s and '80s counterparts.
Look for 50/50
Vintage T-shirt pros always look for thin fabric that's 50 percent cotton, 50 percent poly—it's the holy grail, in terms of softness, and it sits well on the body. Plus, a 50/50 T-shirt is more likely to be authentic, since the 100 percent cotton trend didn't really take off until the '90s.
You Want Some Fadeaway
Look out for new graphics on older shirts. Some sellers will buy plain vintage tees, screen print band logos on them, and try to pass them off as authentic. The wear on the T-shirt should match the wear on the design, and fadeaway is normal.
Check Your Labels
Labels like Screen Stars, Anvil, Springford, Fantasy, Sportswear, and Touch of Gold are good indicators of age, because they went out of production in the '90s. T-shirt mega-brands Hanes and Fruit of the Loom have gone through a few different label designs: a quick Google search should be able to give you an idea of when your shirt was made.
Don't Sweat Imperfections
You want an Iron Maiden tee to look like it's gone through two or three decades of hard partying. When you're shopping for vintage concert tees, don't be put off by things like loose necklines, tiny rips, paint splatters, or cut-off sleeves—these are all details that designers try to replicate.
Don't Trust Vintage Sizes
A 1976 medium and a 2016 medium are not the same thing. If you're shopping IRL, make sure to try that T-shirt on. And if you're dealing with an online seller, ask them for specific measurements—not just the size on the label.
And Don't Overpay
Maybe that Sade T-shirt sells for $300 in a trendy vintage boutique, but it could be hiding out for half the price in someone's Etsy store. Check eBay's completed auctions to see what vintage tees from your favorite bands have sold for recently, and do some comparison shopping between online and IRL shops.
If You Go the eBay Route…
Beware of sellers who have sold multiple copies of the same T-shirt. And look out for the term "new old stock"—it's used to describe authentic vintage tees that have never been worn (aka overstock that was put into storage). Actual new old stock is super-rare, and, sadly, most sellers who claim to have a stash of it are just passing off reproductions as the real deal.
Where to Shop IRL
Afterlife Boutique, San Francisco
OK, the rarities on Afterlife's site are pricey, but the Mission District boutique is also home to loads of under-$100 concert tees, which run the musical gamut from Siouxsie and the Banshees to New Kids on the Block. And, this being San Francisco, the place is also a treasure trove of vintage Grateful Dead tees.
Procell, New York City
This Lower East Side shop is a go-to for '90s and early 2000s rap, hip-hop, and R&B merch (with the occasional Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. T-shirt thrown in the mix), which owner Brian Procell sources from all over—from church basement sales to Japanese thrift stores. Keep up with his latest finds on Instagram @procell.
Fruition Vintage, Las Vegas
Fruition is out to prove that there's more to the Vegas shopping scene than luxury boutiques (although the store does have an impressive collection of vintage Louis Vuitton). Here you'll find a mix of vintage concert tees and retro sportswear from brands like Fila, Adidas, and Champion.
Where to Shop Online
Tyranny and Mutation, tyrannyandmutation.com
If you're after a rare T-shirt and you have cash to burn, this is the place. The Seattle-based online shop carries impossible-to-find merch—from Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy to The Smiths and Joy Division.
We're firmly in fantasy-shopping territory now, but we had to include this online shop from Alessandra Brawn—the woman who procures vintage band merch for Rihanna, Kanye West, and A$AP Rocky.
There's no shortage of vintage shops on Etsy, but VTGdallas is a good place to start. The store's heart is firmly planted in the '90s (if you missed your chance to buy a Jewel tour T-shirt in middle school, the time is now) and doesn't shy away from boy bands, pop-punk, or Céline Dion "My Heart Will Go On" tribute tees.