Reader Request: Styling Your Graphic Tees

Reader Kim e-mailed me this query:

I was wondering if you could do a post with suggestions on how to work graphic t-shirts into a wardrobe with a little style. I must confess that I have a total threadless.com obsession. As a result, I have a ridiculous number of crew neck graphic print shirts, that while they tend to be pretty fitted (a left-over from their former patronage of American Apparel base shirts), are really obviously nerd-a-licious t-shirts. I have pretty good success incorporating t-shirts with other stylish details (various necklines like boat, v’s, scoops, yoke details, sequins, beading, etc) into outfits that look more thought-out. But lately the graphic t-shirts are throwing me for a loop. I usually just default to my t-shirt, boot cut jeans and running shoes (maybe a track jacket for extra layering). All of this is feeling very tired and uninspired. Can you please suggest some ways to make my nerd shirts feel a little more sartorially inspired?

Well. So. Yeah. I will admit to having a drawer full of darling graphic tees that get relatively little wear. So this question posed quite a challenge for me, and I had to dig back into the deep, deep archives to unearth a variety of looks. (As will be evident by the variety of hairstyles and weather visible here.) But hopefully a few of these will spark a few ideas for cute, clever, fun printed tees.

A Peeking Design Element

Naturally, we buy graphic tees because they show, say, or express something we love and/or identify with. But to make them more versatile, it’s important to remember that the whole graphic needn’t be fully visible at all times. Here’ the very top of my “Minnesota Babe” shirt from I Like You is peeking out of my cloak hoody. Just enough design to add interest and depth, even if the entire illustration isn’t visible.

 In an otherwise dressy ensemble

Graphic tees can serve as a bridging piece when you want to dress down an outfit. Here, we’ve got big earrings, a full skirt, and heels. With a blouse or cardigan, this would be office-ready. Swap in the graphic tee, and it’s great for a weekend night out. For colder temps, add a leather jacket and tights, trouser jeans and a blazer, or even dress slacks and a chunky cardigan.

This can be tougher with athletic-looking, boxy crewneck graphic tees, but if you choose more casual pieces for the rest of the outfit, it can still work. Below, I’ve got a simple khaki skirt and some Dansko Marcelles. Also try skinny pants and heels, or a miniskirt with tights and boots to make those crewnecks work. You can also add a scarf to soften the neckline, since you’re no longer worried about showing the whole graphic print!

With a longer outer layer

Most of us default to a traditional hoodie or cardigan for graphic tee-based outfits, but longer outer layers work beautifully, too. Long/”boyfriend” cardigans, dusters, and drape-front jackets can all complement tees with busy designs.

Over a tank or long-sleeved tee

This one is unlikely to hold universal appeal, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. Here, I’ve got on a graphic long-sleeve with a boatneck, which looks adorable with the bright tank underneath. Taking a basic graphic crewneck and shoving a bright tank underneath probably won’t work, but graphic tees that have less athletic-looking necklines and detailing are better bets. This layering technique is especially helpful if your tee is a bit too short for the proportions you’re hoping to create, as was the case for me in the outfit above. You can also try a long-sleeved tee as your underlayer for a short-sleeved tee. Definitely a casual, collegiate look that won’t suit all tastes or figures, but one that can be both warm and fun.

Since I’m no expert at graphic tee wearing, I’m hoping you folks can contribute more (and better!) ideas for making these wardrobe staples work! Do you love and wear graphic tees? How do you style yours? Do you mix them into more dressed-up looks, or keep it casual? Feel free to share links to photos of your favorite graphic tee outfits, yours or otherwise.

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  • http://www.amandaesque.com Amanda

    I wear mine with dark jeans and a blazer with the sleeves cuffed. Brings it up to a level I can rock in the office on a more casual day!

    • Tracy

      I will have to try this! Sounds super cute.

  • http://heyskirt.wordpress.com Minnie

    Oh wow, I have such a problem with this too. I have an entire wardrobe of t-shirts that I stopped wearing a couple of years ago. (I got t-shirt fatigue really bad a couple of years ago – I’m finally over it, but they no longer work with my style!)

    What about refashioning them to make them more fitted or stylish? There are tons of t-shirt DIY tutorials online for turning them into everything from halters to skirts. Might not work for everyone, but if you have basic sewing skills, this could be an option.

  • Miss T

    Though hard to find, graphic tees that have mesh detailing, or that are constructed of multiple fabrics/textures/prints are very easy to style (e.g., sleeves of a different color), I’ve found. Also, the Sweet Pea line by Stacy Frati offers a selection of fun graphic tops (mostly mesh) that can be dressed up or down, layered, etc. I’ve had several of her tops for years and can always find ways to use them in unique ways, under or over other tops. One of her tops is long-sleeved and has medium sized black sunflowers all over it and it looks really cut peeking out from under a plain short-sleeved tee. The most versatile graphic tee I ever had was one that I got at Ross years ago that had a photographic scene of a sunset over Miami! The colors were intense, the fit was great, and the picture rather unexpected and unusual. A real conversation piece!

  • http://www.monkeyobsessions.blogspot alice

    I finally decided to get rid of 90% of my threadless tshirts for this very reason and I’ve never looked back. There was a time in my life when they worked for me and I loved them, but I had to face the fact that the current me didn’t feel great in graphic t’s. I felt sort of sentimental about a bunch of them so was only able to donate them in little batches, but now I only have my three favorite shirts left and I wear them exclusively for working out.

    • Molly

      Same here! I’m holding onto a few favorites, but I’m curious to see how long they’ll last in my closet…

  • Louise

    I solved my graphic tee styling issue by getting rid of them completely. I’m not suggesting that you do the same, just saying what worked for me. This was a deliberate choice on my part to mature my style, as I felt my printed tees reflected more who I was in college than currently.

    As tees wore out or faded or got stained, I replaced them with solid color tees in a woman’s cut. Many of my tees were from a time when it was harder to find the female shape ones, so they were boxy men’s cuts. I started to own a nice selection of fitted, feminine tees in a variety of solid colors, sleeve lengths, and necklines. They literally go with everything else I own and are simple and appropriate. At one point I decided this was “me” and gave away the rest all in one batch.

    An unexpected bonus of this process was how freeing it felt to no longer express myself through graphic tee design. Since I don’t buy them, I don’t feel like I have to pick the perfect one, nor do I take free ones from trade shows or conferences. I’m not making the “right” or “wrong” statement on my chest. For me, fewer choices means more happiness. Weird, huh?

    • Bee

      Louise, I could have written that word for word. I really started to feel silly in graphic tees after about 26 and no longer own a single one.

  • Leah

    I just wear mine to the gym. I figure my gym clothes can handle a bit of cuteness.

  • http://www.rabidchiapet.com Amber

    I’ve been meaning to ask for an Insomniac Sale Pick of short-sleeved graphic T-shirts. They are one of my greatest sartorial weaknesses…and I, too, have a total threadless.com obsession. And I normally don’t just settle for patterns. No, no. I like cute animals and quirky, nerdy sayings and anything else that can be considered way too young for a 28 year old to be wearing.

    I tend to keep the outfit casual, but I work in a very casual setting. (The rule is pretty much “wear clothes.”) Even when I do wear them with skirts in the summer, the skirts are very casual skirts.

  • Anne

    I have no qualms about layering a graphic tee under a dress. They look cute peeking out of a shirt-waist dress or even a knit dress that has a too low for comfort neck line. Just make sure the dress has a casual vibe. I also love the look of a graphic tee paired with a pencil skirt and jean jacket.I think the same two tops would look great with a maxi skirt too. My favorite graphic tees have come from the Roxie line by Quicksilver. Old Navy churns out cute tees every year too

    .I have stacks of tee shirts from centuries and fun runs. Unfortunately they are always baggy mens’ cut and never look good with the rest of my wardrobe. Can’t part with them though. They represent all the effort it takes to keep me in shape.

  • ParisGrrl

    A graphic t can look great with a blazer and jeans or trousers–it’s a very popular look in France.

  • LG

    I just listened to the SSS podcast #2 – thanks SO much. This had such practical advice and has already, well, helped! Many thanks.

  • http://sheilaephemera.blogspot.com/ Sheila (of Ephemera)

    I LOVE wearing my graphic tees as part of a dressier outfit! I have two Threadless shirts:

    http://sheilaephemera.blogspot.com/2012/01/i-heart-samurai.html
    http://sheilaephemera.blogspot.com/2012/01/happy-new-year-2012.html (scroll down past my NYE outfit)

    I think of this as my “rocker chick” ensemble:
    – a plaid tee and a printed design tee: http://sheilaephemera.blogspot.com/2011/05/casual-friday-and-too-short-weekend.html
    – an abstract patterned tee: http://sheilaephemera.blogspot.com/2011/04/casual-friday-and-weekend-catch-up.html

    I also incorporated a graphic tee (with crystals) into a week-long wardrobe challenge: http://sheilaephemera.blogspot.com/2010/03/3rd-capsule-wardrobe-challenge-recap.html
    I wore it under a strapless dress, with a green shiny lace skirt and with a black pencil skirt with zipper detail.

    Love the graphic tees! Rock them!

  • Heather

    The stiff, boxy ones are given to my husband. I then steal the nice, drapy worn-in ones. Also, I usually cut the neck and the hem of the sleeve.

    • http://thehardestbitisthetitle.blogspot.com Erika

      I cut crewnecks out. Just taking off the binding is often enough, but sometimes the scissors will play a bit more :)

      My work environment is fairly casual, so I get away with wearing pretty much anything I want (yes, VERY lucky). Reasonably modest and heavily tattooed, so not too much skin is shown, but there are certainly no sartorial constraints.

      For t-shirts that have passed wearability that you still love – they make cute cushions and can be safety-pinned over the lid of the centre console of a car (you know, where you hide the cd covers, spare change and miscellany)

  • http://findingmykd.blogspot.com/ Bridget

    I wear tshirts in lab all the time, usually layered over a long sleeve shirt. I don’t get too fancy, but yes, I do feel too casual or too young sometimes when I wear them (I’m 25). I have spent some time thinking about what to do with them after the bench science “could bleach everything I wear accidentally” part of my career, and I like the idea of tshirt quilts or using them to make onesies.

  • http://smackingdowntheapathy.blogspot.com D

    I also have a few threadless shirts that I love. I don’t really wear them all that often anymore, but when I do, I like to wear them with a cute patterned skirt with similar colors, with a cardigan, or with a scarf. Also, until recently I considered this sacrilege, but I have started butchering some of my tees so they have a more flattering neck and sleeves. It can work wonders!

  • Natalie

    Thanks for this post, Sal! As a college student, I have embraced the short sleeve tee over long sleeve tee look for a while now, and have experimented with tees and skirts. I’m looking forward to trying your other suggestions, especially with trousers and a blazer.

    I have found that I can often style-up my basic tee plus jeans look by simply trading athletic shoes for heels or colorful flats and throwing on some chunky jewelry.

  • http://www.futurelint.blogspot.com FutureLint

    I love this look from the Fashionist Next Door:

    http://fashionista-next-door.com/2011/11/how-to-casual-style.html

    A scarf, blazer, and brooch!

  • http://www.befabulousdaily.us Cynthia

    I just took a bowl and cut out scoopnecks in all my t-shirts that have a tight crewneck. I hate the look of tight crewnecks on me and I don’t know why so many companies still insist on making them! I can actually imagine wearing my “Science is a Verb Now” glow in the dark t-shirt out of the house, now. Although only for super-casual.

  • http://www.oranges-and-apples.com/ Franca

    This is a great topic1 i have so many graphic tees, but stopped wearing them around age 25, except to the gym or in bed. i should make a concerted effort to put an outfit together around one.

  • Cindy

    I’ve remade a few of my favorites by cutting around the “graphic” of the tee and sewing it onto a fitted t-shirt. The nice part is that I used shirts that were of a better quality than the original design was printed, and it was a way to save shirts that were too small! I also personalized them a bit with some hand embroidery, too. I’ll share pictures if you’d like, but I don’t have a blog.

  • Miss T

    I’ve THOUGHT about doing just what you describe, Cindy! I think I’ll give it a try!

  • Leslie

    I wear graphic tees with a plain black or khaki skirt, with either danskos or flats. Plain cardigan or leather jacket over the top.

    Also, of course, with shorts or jeans. I don’t wear shorts to work ever, but can and do wear jeans with whatever on top or the skirt/tee shirt combo. For work, it is usually the skirt.

    I used to cut out the necks of some shirts, but my tendency now is not to buy it if it’s not the right shape/fit.

  • Mrs.M in MI

    I have to admit I’m mostly in the “worn to the gym” camp. I like to buy T-shirts on my travels, and my family knows this and buys me T-shirts as souvenirs when they travel, so my spin class must think I’ve been everywhere!

    I do have a few cute graphic tees I don’t quite want to relegate to gym wear; for example, my sister just gave me a “Knope in 2012″ T-shirt for Christmas. I like to wear them over polo shirts, because I like a collar to fill in the crew neck, but the polo is still a stretchy knit for comfort.

    I also always wear them with skirts: a woolly or corduroy mini, tights, and casual boots in the winter, or a casual cotton pencil skirt in the summer. I think it helps elevate the extreme casualness of the T-shirt.

  • K

    Thanks again Sally! I’m so glad to hear that I am not the only one with this problem. Looks like we could all use a little inspiration in this direction.

  • http://playingcloset.blogspot.com/ Claire

    Yes please thank you!!! I ate up this post and all the reader suggestions. Sal, you put the term “graphic tee” on my radar years ago. My twist is to wear them with menswear-inspired elements like vests and trousers.

    Here’s one of those days I felt like I hit the outfit jackpot:
    http://playingcloset.blogspot.com/2011/03/snapshot.html

    I also did the diy thing recently to an XL Batman shirt I picked up in the boy’s section of TJX for $3. I feminized it by cutting out the neckline, cuffing and tacking the sleeves, and cutting side slits. Don’t have a picture of it yet, but I freakin’ love it!!!! So adorable and unexpected. I’m surprised by how well it turned out. And I admit that every time I wear it, inside I think, “I’m Batman”.

  • Amy

    I know i’m LATE commenting. Like, a year behind the last person. But since i own a lot of graphic tees and still like to look like a grown-up, I thought I’d share my favorite way to wear them for the next person who discovers this post. I always pair my tee with a cardigan, blazer, or some type of other classic open front garment that matches a dominant color from the graphic. That’s the most important part – color matching. My white shirt with the black and red Elvira image gets paired with a red, black, and white striped cardigan. The Frankenstein hands tee matches a beautiful jade green cardigan. You get the idea.

    I think paying careful attention to this helps the graphic tee look like a deliberate, albeit quirky, design choice rather than giving the impression that you’re lazy and just threw on some casual wear. I also make sure the rest of my outfit is plain, mature, and classic. Usually the bottom half is comprised of black slacks, black tailored jeans, or a plain black skirt/tights/shoes combo. I get lots of compliments at work on how put together I look, even on casual Fridays, so I think I’m onto something here!