How to Thrift Shop for Vintage Concert T-Shirts

Shopping thrift stores, flea markets and estate sales can be overwhelming. With the sheer volume of stuff, how do you know where to start? How do you spot gems amid all the … well, junk?

As a professional reseller who has been combing through thrift stores for the better part of 30 years, I can help. If you’re ready to cut your shopping time in half, score bigger bargains and walk away with brag-worthy finds you can flip for cash, read on.

From hard-to-find household items to resale money-makers, everything featured in my “Thrift Shop Like a Pro” series qualifies as a BOLO (Be On the Look-Out for) item. When you find it, buy it!

Featured find: Vintage concert T-shirts

Instead of one specific brand of item, this month’s installment covers an entire category — vintage concert T-shirts. Full disclosure: The last concert I attended was during the Clinton administration (Tori Amos, 1996, thank you very much). But staying on top of the resale game means following buyer demand and shopping outside my comfort zone.

Like most other hot collectibles, demand for vintage tees is driven by nostalgia. Today’s buyers are predominately middle-aged with a healthy amount of disposable income. They grew up in the 1980s and 90s and want to recapture the magic of that Aerosmith concert in the summer of ’83 or relive an R.E.M. show they snuck out of the house to see.

Luckily for shoppers, most secondhand stores barely glance at the content of a T-shirt before pricing. Staff simply don’t have time to process clothing that carefully. Especially in smaller markets, gems from the musical past can easily fall through the cracks.

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Why buy it?

Sure, thread-bare concert T-shirts may not be your idea of high fashion. But bless those enthusiastic buyers who can’t get enough of them. Resale prices for authentic vintage concert tees are out of this world. Besides Harris Tweed and Levi’s “Big E” denim, few other clothing categories are as consistently hot.

On Etsy, this Electric Light Orchestra T-shirt promoting the band’s The Big Night tour in 1977 is listed for $1,550. On eBay, this Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert tee from 1978 sold for $800 and the highest bid for this 1992 Morrissey shirt was $577.89.

And those are just a few highlights. Thousands of vintage concert items are for sale right now on various resale sites, including vintage hoodies, posters and ticket stubs. Though it may be tedious, make a habit of sorting through the racks of T-shirts and sweatshirts the next time you hit a thrift store or yard sale — it just might pay off big.

What to look for

Most thrift shops are filled to the brim with T-shirts. And 99% of them aren’t worth much more than their secondhand price. Finding that elusive 1% takes a keen eye that can quickly scan and spot a resale-ready treasure.

Here’s what I look for in a vintage concert T-shirt:

  • Condition: Buyers expect vintage tees to be “pre-loved.” But stains or tears to the front or back graphics will reduce a shirt’s value.
  • Signatures: Most bands get their start by playing smaller venues where a few lucky fans could get their shirts autographed. Rare signatures (think Jerry Garcia or INXS’ Michael Hutchence) can increase resale prices ten-fold or more.
  • Dates and cities: Tees that include tour dates and city line-ups tend to sell better than those without.
  • Maker: From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, there were dozens of print-ready T-shirt manufacturers. Some of the most common brands include JERZEES, Screen Stars, Champion, Russell Athletic, Hanes and Stedman. Shirts with original neck labels tend to sell better than those without.
  • Single-stitch construction: Until the 1990s, most T-shirts were sewn using a single line of thread to the bottom hem, shoulder seam, and sleeve hem. Contemporary shirts are double-stitched in these same areas. Single-stitch construction can be an indicator that you’ve found a genuine vintage tee.
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Pro tip: Vintage tees of all kinds are a lucrative market for counterfeiters. Learn to spot a fake by reading The Ultimate Guide to Vintage T-Shirt Authentication at Defunked.

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