Here at The Essential Man, I’ve always preached the importance of centering your core style around essentials.

This means stepping away from the terrible styles we all wore in our early 20s – annoying graphics, terrible color combinations, clothes that don’t fit and make you look fat.

But today, we’re going to go against this advice (just a bit) and talk about the one piece many of my grown-up clients struggle with – the graphic t-shirt.

The truth is, you can still rock a graphic tee without looking like you’re a 20-year old whose favorite pastime is getting blackout drunk.

Graphic tees are my favorite things to wear as the weather starts to warm up. Throw them on along with a denim jacket for a quick coffee run or lounge around in one while you’re on vacation.

It’s ok to have some fun with your style. 

But there are some rules now that you got some adult responsibilities.

Here’s how to wear graphic tee shirts like a grown man.

Graphics – The junk food of your wardrobe

Whenever I start working with a client, the first thing I do is pare down the amount of graphics, patterns, and colors in their closets.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with them, I wear graphics, patterns, and tons of color. But it’s kind of like junk food – most people looking to get their style “into shape” overdo it.

Before we can introduce the occasional graphics back into their style diet, we have to get them in a good place. Which is why the first phase in all wardrobe redesigns I do focus on toning down all the graphics ala Rule #7.

Once we get that in order, like any healthy diet, we can enjoy the occasional graphic t-shirt like we can the occasional Big Mac.

So let’s assume you’ve gotten your style in order. How do you balance the casualness of a graphic tee with looking mature?

Here’s my trick

Could this hang in a museum?

When I look at a graphic tee, I ask myself “Could this image be framed and hung in a museum?” I naturally call this “The Museum Rule”.

If the answer is yes, it’s what I would consider a more sophisticated, “grown-up” graphic. These graphic tend to be on the more abstract or minimalist side.

If not, say, in the case of a brand’s logo or a throwback tee from your favorite rock band, I consider it a bit more casual.

Here’s how I rank the most common graphic tee styles, from more casual to less casual. 

Notice I didn’t say “More Casual” to “Formal”, but instead rank them by “More Casual” to “Less Casual”.

Why?

T-shirts by nature are casual, so in turn they’re going to make your look feel more casual.

Slapping a graphic on that tee multiplies the casualness. It’s like adding sugar to your soda!

Still, this doesn’t mean you can’t look put together and stylish, so long as you keep my scale in mind.

Here are some more rules to help you incorporate graphic tees into your style:

  • Just stay away from brand logo tees The only exception I give to this rule is Saturdays, whose brand name is so normal it’s practically invisible. Save the Gucci and Balmain tees to the kids and guys that need to show off.
  • The more minimal the graphic, the more sophisticated and grown-up it will feel A good way to think about it: compare the vibe between a crazy mocha-frappa-double-whip drink vs a black coffee. One is a drink some 14-year old kid would buy, the other is for a grown man ready to get to work.
  • When going for word t-shirts, opt for single words instead of phrases Single words follow the “minimal” rule and feel a bit more sophisticated than a phrase t-shirt, which often comes off as cheesy. As for word choice, it almost doesn’t matter. When I worked as a designer, we found that single word t-shirts sold really well no matter what the word was, as long as the font design was cool.
  • When it comes to band shirts, it helps if you are actually a fan Look, I know it sounds like some high school rule, but you’ll enjoy a band shirt more if you’re an actual fan. Plus you shield yourself from any awkward conversations with fellow fans if you didn’t actually listen to them. (Bonus points if it’s vintage.)
  • If graphics aren’t your style, don’t wear them I know for some readers, a graphic tee doesn’t align with their aesthetic. Totally cool. I have some clients that absolutely want to go a bit more traditional menswear with their style and avoid printed tees. Ignore this post. For those guys that want to blend a more relaxed, casual style, here are some look ideas.

4 Graphic Tees, 4 Looks

FRIDAY COFFEESHOP WORK SESSION

One of my favorite surprising style choices: wearing formal dress pants casually. I drew inspiration from Saturday’s own lookbook and kicked this look up a notched by swapping in the open blue shirt for a light denim jacket, the sweat shorts for grey dress pants. Saturday’s logo-tee is perfect in its simplicity, making this mixed casual look my personal go-to for a casual Friday work session at the coffeeshop. In place of my favorite minimal white sneakers, I went with an off-white Raf Simons x Stan Smith, which softens the look a bit more and adds a subtle amount of color.

Denim Jacket: APC, $290 | T-Shirt: Saturdays, $48 | Dress Pants: Dunhill, $295 | Cuff: Dunhill, $275 | Socks: Nonnative, $20 | Sneakers: Raf Simons x Stan Smith, $320 | Briefcase: Suit Supply $249

 

CASUAL BUSINESS

My favorite type of graphic tees are definitely abstract prints. I found the perfect inspiration for this look in this gentlemen. His bold sportcoat matches this soft pale pink tee perfectly. Grey chinos go really well with this tee as the pink is on the grey side. Sticking with darker neutrals like the olive bag, black jacket, and black boots help tone down this tricky color even more.

Jacket: Folk Cotton and Linen Overshirt, $245 | T-Shirt: NN07, $80 | Chinos: APC, $250 | Belt: Todd Snyder, $99 | Bag: Filson, $325 | Boots: J.Crew, $248 | Socks: Nonnative, $20

LUNCH BY THE WATER

Whenever choosing an illustration style graphic, avoid anything that looks like a movie poster slapped onto a shirt. This tee from Presidents is a beautiful example of a grown up, fun tee. Hand illustrated surfers are subtle and aren’t asking for too much attention. I imagined the man in the photo waiting for a table at a waterside restaurant and wanted to bring the same vibes to this look. Let’s go a bit more casual. I swapped out his sportcoat and lace-ups for a lightweight jacket and minimalist brown sneakers. (Don’t forget the no-show socks.) Lounge out even more with an easy drawstring pant. All you need now is a fritto misto platter and some vino della casa.

Jacket: The Lost Explorer, $300 | T-shirt: Presidents, $95 | Pants: Battenwear, $185 | Sneakers: KOIO, $278 | No-show Socks: J.Crew, $10 | Watch: Timex, $140 | Bracelet: Mikia, $120

THE HOTEL ROOFTOP

An all over graphic, especially a floral/tropical one, can be intimidating. I love the idea of the two inspiration images, but there are a few things I would change. For the top guy with a strikingly similar shirt, the red shoes draw too much attention. For the bottom guy, I love the addition of the dressier sportscoat and loafers, but there’s just too much going on with the mixture of patterns. So for my look I took the best of both worlds and tweaked it. I toned down all the patterns and went with solid colors, letting the t-shirt be the star. The addition of the dressy, airy linen blazer and suede loafers still play up that relaxed, vacation vibe, but make the look a lot more sophisticated. Drop off your bag in your room and head straight to the rooftop bar.

Linen Sportscoat: Todd Snyder, $498 | T-shirt: Dries Van Noten, $215 | Linen Shorts: Todd Snyder, $188 | Loafers: Suit Supply, $299 | Sunglasses: Warby Parker, $95 | Weekender Bag: Polo Ralph Lauren, $700

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Seen or bought any graphic tees this season? Share them in the comments below, and let me know how you like to wear them.

peter@theessentialman.com'
Author

Hi, I'm Peter. I spent 11 years as a menswear designer here in NYC. Now, I help some of the most successful men look really good as a Private Personal Stylist and writer of The Essential Man. You can learn more about what I do by clicking here