The dryer buzzer sounds, and it's the first thing you grab: Your favorite "Donkey Kong" T-shirt, nearly transparent from years of wear. For you, that shirt's value is emotional -- you've had it since seventh grade. But did you know that on the open market, it might be worth $150? An essential item in any great wardrobe, vintage T-shirts are also a big business. As with any collectible, a vintage tee is worth whatever someone is willing to shell out for it, but here are a few factors that raise the price tag, whether you're scouring flea markets or surfing eBay.
GREAT, SNUG FIT
"In the early '90s, T-shirts went into relaxed fit hell," says John Keddie of online shirt emporium www.vintagevantage.com. "More recently people realized that T-shirts can make you look fantastic." Thus, buttery-soft, tight fitting tees from the '70s and '80s (without holes or stains, of course) will command higher prices than that XXL Living Colour tour shirt sitting in your drawer. Shirts were thinner back in the day because the machines used to make them were inefficient, wasting a lot of thread on loose weaves. When T-shirt production moved overseas in the '90s, the quality of the cotton that was used declined, too.
DOSE OF NOSTALGIA
T-shirts provide an easy way to relive your (or somebody else's) childhood. Any tee featuring era touchstones like Pac-Man, Culture Club, Powell Peralta skateboards or the 1984 Detroit Tigers can fetch $30-$50 (Or more -- Vintage Vantage currently has a mint-condition 1981 Pac Man shirt listed at $200). Meanwhile, rock shirts remain the major movers in the vintage tee market. A Rolling Stones tour shirt from 1972, for example, will bring in "upwards of $300," says Katy Rodriguez, co-owner of Resurrection, a high-end vintage boutique with locations in New York and Los Angeles. Serious shirt hunters date their finds by the tags -- blue and orange Screen Stars logos from the '70s , a blue tag with a grey Swoosh on Nike shirts made from 1980 to '87, or mid-'70s no-name tags stating just size and fabric content, to name a few.
DASH OF KITSCH
City slickers seem to love sporting tees from summer camps they never went to, and aficionados never hesitate to snatch up goofy homemade designs ("39 and Fun to Kiss") or sure-to-get-a-chuckle tourist shirts ("Greetings from Wala Wala, Washington"). The Web site www.VintageTrends.com, for example, is listing an '80s shirt from the Hagerstown Speedway for $115. Another favorite? Once-popular, now-punchline musical groups (Hall & Oates, Lionel Ritchie).
While a great graphic or raised, hand-stitched (as opposed to screened) numbers will always be in demand, nothing compares to the no-one-else-has-it tee. Price-wise, that means for limited-edition Harley Davidson and BMX items or autographed or hand-drawn gear from your favorite band, the sky's the limit. And living in the District is a distinct advantage.
"In New York, you can't go out and find things on your own," says Leann Trowbridge, co-owner of Meeps & Aunt Neesie's Vintage on U Street, "but here, the demand isn't as great, and things aren't as picked over, so you have a much better chance of scoring something really unique at a garage sale, and that's the coolest thing a T-shirt can be."