While you’re combing the Internet this holiday season for the perfect nerdy t-shirt to gift someone, we thought we’d take this opportunity to invite you to look back on a few classics. The things we choose to brand our bodies with — whether it be the logos of our favorite bands, or symbols from most-loved films — are bold statements that help define who we are and what we’re feeling. Some t-shirt designs have become larger than life — absorbed into the pop culture mind grapes and resurrected in various 2.0 redesigns. Others have stayed the same and are classics for a reason. Click through to check out ten iconic pop culture t-shirts, and leave your favorites below.
John Lennon’s New York City Tee
John Lennon needed a cover image and press photos to help promote his fifth solo album Walls and Bridges, so he took to a sunny rooftop with photographer Bob Gruen wearing a $5 tee he purchased on the streets of New York City. The Beatle was self-conscious about his pale arms in the cutoff shirt, but that didn’t stop Gruen from snapping some great shots. The images taken on top of Lennon’s East 52nd Street penthouse apartment became legendary, and the t-shirt itself has toured the world since Lennon’s death in 1980.
The Rebel Without a Cause White Tee
James Dean helped popularize the symbol of bad boy swagger and teen angst when he wore a plain, white undershirt in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause — about suburban delinquents trying to find their way. The cultural icon embodied rebellious cool, and the blank garment didn’t distract from the man wearing it — because it was he that made the clothes and not the other way around. Since then, Marlon Brando and many other stars (male and female) have donned versions of the classic tee as a similar symbol.
The Ramones Logo Tee
An iconic symbol of punk rock music — charming in a way that only the four lovable badasses from Queens could make it — is The Ramones’ presidential logo tee. Dee Dee Ramone befriended an artist in the Bowery named Arturo Vega who became inspired to create the design after a trip to Washington, D.C. Band tees weren’t a popular selling item at gigs in those days, so the guys initially laughed at the idea. Luckily Vega delivered the goods anyway and gave us something to love forever.
The Big Lebowski‘s Kaoru Betto Baseball Tee
While there are now a bazillion t-shirts inspired by The Dude and The Big Lebowski , we like this popular Kaoru Betto Baseball tan/brown raglan. Jeff Bridges has worn the same tee in several of his other films, but it’s hard not to instantly recall ransom note reading and a joint by the fireplace when staring at the baseball-inspired design.
Napoleon Dynamite‘s Vote for Pedro Tee
Geekdom’s popularity has come and gone in waves, and nerdy icons like Napoleon Dynamite have contributed to its cause for better or worse. Shuffling and swaying awkwardly on screen, the eccentric Napoleon ignited a pop culture phenomenon when he wore a “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt in the 2004 film. A show of faith for his buddy’s school election campaign turned into a trendy cash grab at stores everywhere. The Pedro tee helped spawn a series of allegiance t-shirts in later years, such as the “Team Edward” and “Team Jolie” threads we’re all too familiar with now.
“Frankie Say Relax” Tee of the 1980s
ZTT Records’ Paul Morley — a British journalist and music producer — designed the “Frankie Say” t-shirts that were used to help promote Brit synthpop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood during the 1980s. Since then it’s been worn by everyone from Friends‘ Ross to Mary-Kate Olsen, but during its prime the tee became a symbol of the burgeoning AIDS crisis.
The Mickey Mouse Tee of the 1940s and ’50s
After Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse became a smashing success, Miami company Tropix Togs — who held the license to recreate the Disney Empire’s characters — made the classic Mickey tee we all know today. Its design suits the kid in people of all ages. Michael Jackson and an Outsiders-era Emilio Estevez are just a few who helped make the mouse wardrobe staple popular again.
Hulk Hogan’s Hulkamania Tee
Hulkamaniacs went wild when wrestler Hulk Hogan would light up the ring, ritualistically tearing his Hulkamania tee from his body while flexing his muscles. The charismatic champ became the face of the WWF, which soared in popularity during the ’80s and ’90s. Toys, clothing lines, charity events, magazine covers, and more glowed Hulkamania yellow as a new American hero was born.
The Che Guevara Tee
A symbol of idealism, youth, and revolution to some, and a cheap marketing gimmick or lazy activist statement to others, the Che Guevara t-shirt has sparked controversy and conversation since the 1960s. Che’s daughter Aleida Guevara has said:
“I don’t want people to use my father’s face unthinkingly. I don’t like to see him stitched on the backside of a pair of mass-produced jeans. But look at the people who wear Che T-shirts. They tend to be those who don’t conform, who want more from society, who are wondering if they can be better human beings. That, I think he would have liked.”
The Say Anything Tee
When the boombox has been replaced with an iProduct, R2-D2, and hipster mustache, or John Cusack has been totally zombified, we think it’s safe to say that the Say Anything t-shirt has reached the apex of pop culture fame.