If fashion is the ultimate form of self-expression, then no item of clothing is as expressive as the graphic tee. Simultaneously simple yet statement-making, graphic tees provide an opportunity to articulate your personality, identity, and even your mood to those around you—all without having to say a word—and proudly show off your favorite brands, people, important causes, or whatever cheeky phrase best fits your vibe for the day. Today’s offerings comprise classic styles like vintage-style band tees while also tapping into some of the biggest trends of the moment, like Y2K nostalgia, motocross style, and #TomatoGirlSummer.
When shopping for a graphic tee—or any T-shirt, for that matter—you’re faced with a multitude of cuts, fits, and materials (let alone actual graphics), meaning there’s a lot to consider before clicking “add to cart.” To narrow down the seemingly infinite options out there, we consulted a handful of stylists, buyers, and textile experts to share their insights on what makes a graphic tee a great graphic tee.
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What to Look for in Graphic Tees
Silhouette and Fit
Graphic tees come in just about every length, fit, and silhouette you can think of, from ultra-cropped and fitted baby tees to slouchy, oversize tees you can tuck into pants or shorts. “It’s about what works for you,” says Murphy. “If I’m putting time into shopping for a great tee, the most important thing is to make sure it fits. I determine what fit I want—cropped, boxy, oversized, etc.—and then select my size.” If you’re unsure of where to turn in terms of silhouette, she recommends a classic fit that’s slightly updated. “Opt for a little shorter of a sleeve than your standard short sleeve tee, a bit more slim-fitted, and the perfect in-between length that will hit the top of your pants—not too long, not too short.”
For something more trend-forward, Eagle prefers cropped baby tees to achieve a Y2K-inspired look. “They offer versatility—especially during warmer months—and can be dressed up or down, depending on the occasion.” Looking for something oversize? She recommends heading over to the men’s section. “It’s my biggest hack for a perfectly oversized fit,” she says. “Not only do they provide a comfortable feel, but they’re a great option for creating a relaxed and effortless look.”
The material is also important to consider—you’ll want a T-shirt that’s soft and comfortable, says Maguire. A good rule of thumb? “It should be a T-shirt you’d be as happy to wear to bed as you are to wear out,” she adds.
The most common material for T-shirts is cotton, which, as textile expert and Steamery founder Frej Lewenhaupt explains, is a durable fabric that’s also soft and comfortable. “Cotton is a strong fiber that can handle more machine-washing, tumble-drying, and ironing than other fabrics,” he says, adding that higher-quality shirts may use Pima, Supima, or Peruvian cotton, which are known for their softness, strength, and durability. However, some tees are made with synthetic materials or a fiber blend. “Synthetic fibers have a higher likelihood of trapping unwanted odors, but including synthetic fibers in a cotton blend can improve durability,” he notes.
In terms of breathability, natural materials are best, “but this also depends on the thickness of the material, and there are some notable exceptions to this rule,” adds Lewenhaupt. For example, cotton absorbs a lot of moisture, making it less breathable and more prone to wrinkles. “If you prefer a more wrinkle-resistant fabric, you might want to opt for a cotton blend. Materials like polyester, polyamide, modal, lyocell, TENCEL™, nylon, and elastane are more likely to resist wrinkles.”
Of course, choosing the right graphic or print is crucial. “You want to choose a graphic tee with imagery or a slogan that resonates with you,” Maguire says. At the same time, it’s an opportunity to experiment and have fun with it, says Murphy. “Graphic tees can be whatever you want them to be—an expression of yourself or perhaps something more aspirational,” she says. “I try to find something that mildly resonates with my taste but is still a little outside my normal box.”
How do you style a graphic T-shirt?
The beauty of graphic tees is that they’re extremely versatile and can be worked into almost any outfit, regardless of their vibe or aesthetic. For a classic look, Murphy says you can’t go wrong with denim. “Pair your shirt with jeans, shorts, or a denim skirt, and you have a cool, casual, yet chic look.” For something equally casual yet streetwear-inspired, Eagle styles her T-shirts with baggy jeans, sneakers, a chain necklace, and a baseball hat. “This combination is simple yet put together, and the accessories add a nice touch to the overall look.” For a more office-appropriate look, Maguire recommends styling one underneath a blazer and a pair of slacks. “For shoes, opt for a pair of kitten heels or comfortable ballet flats.”
How can you dress up a graphic T-shirt?
While graphic T-shirts may inherently feel casual, they can very easily be dressed up. For a refined look, Eagle suggests pairing one with a maxi skirt, kitten heels, and a leather jacket. If you’re feeling more creative, Maguire recommends styling one under your favorite slip dress or knotting it to create a cropped effect, pairing it with a silk skirt and your favorite heels or platforms. However, dressing up a graphic tee doesn’t need to be complicated—according to Murphy, all you need to make one sexy is a pair of leather pants and a heel.
How should you care for a graphic T-shirt?
“I recommend airing your T-shirts outside occasionally and using a steamer to remove unwanted odors and wrinkles,” advises Lewenhaupt. “You can also use a fabric spray to add a fresh scent and emulate the feeling of clean laundry.” Overall, he recommends washing your clothes less frequently, which will help them last longer and reduce the risk of the graphic fading. When you do wash them, he advises turning the T-shirt inside out to protect the print, using a gentle cycle, and using a laundry detergent that’s compatible with the colors and materials of the shirt.