It’s concert night, and you arrive a little early, escorted by your friend and his older brother. The Grateful Dead don’t start for an hour, so you head to “Shakedown Street,” the nomadic, open-air marketplace where fellow deadheads sell eclectic wares, socialize with friends and strangers, and tailgate. The vibe here is of a glorious and good-natured bohemian paradise.
Since the 1960s, the cult of the Grateful Dead’s diverse and psychedelic fanbase has been nearly as strong as the band itself. Coming together not just around the music, but around the consciousness-altering ethos of ’60s counterculture and free thinking, Grateful Dead fans developed an unmatched sense of community that continues to set them apart. “We didn’t really invent the Grateful Dead, the crowd invented the Grateful Dead,” Jerry Garcia said. In turn, the band allowed their fans the kind of freedom unheard of for other artists—namely, the recording and sharing of tapes of their shows, and the selling of unauthorized apparel.
Of all the trippy apparel permutations, though, it’s still the humble t-shirt that best embodies the Grateful Dead ethos, and none more so than the vaulted vintage tee. As a verifiable relic imbued with magical energy, worn reverentially from show to show, the vintage tee stands as a sought-after reminder of a certain time, certain show, certain configuration of the band. The Instagram account @fromthelot, created by Mason Warner in 2015, acts as an archive of the shirts and graphics, old and new, official and not. Dead tees now sell for hundreds online, popping up on popular sites like Grailed and Depop, with collectors amassing comprehensive collections. In 2019, collector Taylor Welch displayed his enviable collection in an exhibition, The Deadhead Collection: A Visual Experience, in Williamsburg.
We didn’t really invent the Grateful Dead, the crowd invented the Grateful Dead
Grateful Dead fans defy categorization, but certain styles endure: tie-dye, psychedelia, spiritual symbology, handmade and imported textiles and a now-canonical set of iconography—dancing bears, thirteen-point lightning bolt, skeleton and roses—that are instantly recognizable markers of Grateful Dead persuasion.
In recent years, as fashion and streetwear continued their collaboration-obsessed and nostalgia-driven output, it was maybe only a matter of time before being a Deadhead went mainstream. In many ways, Online Ceramics, a small streetwear brand founded by two art school friends in 2016, helped usher in the revolution. Their bootleg Grateful Dead-inspired merchandise caught the attention of John Mayer—a notorious sneakerhead and hypebeast, who, since 2015, has been touring with Dead & Company, a spinoff band with surviving Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Mayer can be credited with helping the Dead reach a different demographic, and also for the popularity of their merchandise, which include hands-on, official collaborations with Online Ceramics. Celebrities have taken to the brand too, with Virgil Abloh, Emily Ratajkowski and Jonah Hill dressing, as GQ notes, “for bliss.”
Another streetwear label founded in 2016, Chinatown Market (since renamed “Market” amid backlash as violence increased against Asian Americans), has also turned out Grateful Dead merchandise, as a somewhat viral photo of LeBron James outfitted in a dancing bear hoodie, athletic shorts and tie-dyed Crocs, can attest. Higher-end fashion brands like Del Toro, Proenza Schouler and James Perse, too, have launched Grateful Dead collaborations (see James Perse’s Grateful Dead Longboard), while others, like Balenciaga and Saint Laurent, have embraced the tie-dyed, carefree aesthetic. Once again, it’s hip to be a hippie.
This month, one-of-a-kind ephemera from the collections of Grateful Dead Productions and their inner circle debut in an auction at Sotheby’s. T-shirts from the band’s longest-serving sound engineer, Dan Healy, will feature both in the auction and alongside it on Sotheby’s Buy Now marketplace, where a selection of tees will be available for immediate purchase. Some of the highlights include a black and white baseball t-shirt with the skull and heart graphics from Reckoning, the 1981 live double album; a light blue shirt from a 1978 concert at Giants Stadium Meadowlands with guests Willie Nelson and New Riders of the Purple Sage; a yellow shirt with the iconic Bertha Skull and Roses from a 1976 concert at UMass Amherst with Patti Smith Group and Roy Ayers Ubiquity; a maroon football shirt from the 1980 Grateful Dead Tour with a skeleton smoking a joint; and a light blue shirt featuring the “foot through rainbow” graphics, with six of the more famous graphics associated with the Grateful Dead on the back.
Available for Immediate Purchase