I was riding my bike home last summer when a homeless man laying down at a bus stop yelled, “Nice surfer shirt!”
I flashed a thumbs up as I passed and howled, “Thanks!”
I have a closet full of striped tees like the one I was wearing, some vintage 1960s and ’70s, some reproductions. I’ve worn this style shirt, off and on, for nearly half of my thirty-seven years. I discovered them while thrifting in early high school in my native Arizona, yet I’d never stopped to consider: who invented them? How did they evolve over time? And what makes a striped tee a “surfer shirt,” anyway?
The Hang Ten clothing company set the surf tee standard. The produced the first surf wear clothing line, and were the first to popularize the striped tee in the gaudy colors and color combinations we associate with the 1960s and early ’70s: orange against lime green; brown paired with mustard yellow; yellow paired with turquoise; purple cut with white and pink bands. Along with classic beach culture icons such as Dick Dale, Gidget, Rat Fink and The Beach Boys, the tacky striped patterns helped define the look of the era. The Brady kids wore the shirts on The Brady Bunch. Brothers Kevin and Wayne Arnold wore them on the period piece The Wonder Years. Depending on your age, your parents probably wore them. (Check your family photos.) According to a 1992 LA Times article, the Hang Ten company kept their original, iconic, eye-catching shirt patterns on file.
Contrary to reason, the guiding design principle seemed to be: the gaudier the better. And somehow that approach worked. The best shirts possess the quality that Thelonious Monk references in his song “Ugly Beauty.” Op and Hobie made them. Striped surfer tees were so popular that mainstream companies such as JC Penny, Sears and Montgomery Ward evenmade them, along with a litany of forgotten off-brands like Wentworth. (I have a Wentworth shirt that is a work of freak art.)
Ugly Beauty: Vintage Hang Ten
Although they eventually fell out of fashion by the late-70s, in some ways, these shirts never completely went away. Any longtime thrifter has run into at least one on a resale rack. There was a brief revival in the early ’90s, when Hang Ten released a line of reproductions after company executives noticed kids in Newport Beach, California sporting vintage Hang Ten shirts with a particular zeal. The bold stripe pattern, both collared and pocket tees, have been experiencing a bit of a moment during the last year, worn by people in the beach pop and garage-pyshe set, some of whom style themselves after ’70s Bowery punks like The Ramones; examples include Nobunny, The Mean Jeans, Jeff The Brotherhood. And Russell Quan, drummer for the legendary Mummies as well as a billion other San Fran garage bands, seems to have been born in one: (See here and here.)
Here’s a cool history of the Hang Ten brand: http://surfcrazy.com/stanleys/hangtenhistory/HangTHistory7080%5B1%5D.htm
And a 2008 article about how Kohl’s was going to revive the Hang Ten brand: http://www.jsonline.com/business/29461529.html
Vintage JC Penney’s Towncraft shirt
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