Thrashed, Threadbare T-shirts Are In The Spotlight For NZ Music Month

By Emma Gleason
Several historic Split Enz T-shirts were loaned for the pop-up, which is on until Sunday May 5. Photo / Nico Rose

Relics from local music history are the subject of a new fan-sourced digital archive and pop-up exhibition, capturing an important aspect of culture in Aotearoa.

Clothes communicate our identity, interests and tastes, and when it comes to music, T-shirts have become a definitive garment for showing allegiance. They’re niche — often produced in small, limited-edition runs, aligned with concerts or albums — and send a message to like-minded fans. Walk past someone in the street dressed in merch from an artist you love and whether there’s a nod or smile of consensus or just an internalised belonging, it means something.

“Fans literally become mobile billboards for the artists,” Cath Andersen, chief executive of the New Zealand Music Commission, tells Viva, adding that band T-shirts become an extension of the artist’s visual aesthetic or vision for their music.

They also act as a marker of place and time: a physical record of a couple of sweaty hours in a pub at a gig, or a day in the baking hot sun, or the existence of a short-lived but significant band.

“They represent something culturally and historically important to Aotearoa,” explains Anderson.

All that history makes this garb ripe for a retrospective, and that’s exactly what the New Zealand Music Commission has done for Te Marama Puoro o Aotearoa | NZ Music Month, unveiling Threads of Sound: A Retrospective on New Zealand Music Tees, a digital gallery of clothing relics that the public can contribute too.

There’s an analogue iteration, a pop-up exhibition, that was unveiled on Wednesday night on Karangahape Rd — a fitting location given its role in Tāmaki Makaurau’s creative landscape — the small crowd braved the rain to see a selection of T-shirts in the cosy space. Attendees pointed out old favourites and unexpected appearances with excitement that challenged the prevailing stereotypes of a music crowd.

Attendees at the Threads of Sound pop-up launch discovered a trove of classic T-shirts. Photo / Nico Rose
Attendees at the Threads of Sound pop-up launch discovered a trove of classic T-shirts. Photo / Nico Rose

There was Able Tasmans, True Bliss, Headless Chickens, Tuatara, Garageland, King Kapisi, Toy Love and Straightjacket Fits. Many, once a classic black, had faded to grey. Best represented in the bunch were Shihad and Split Enz.

The latter is probably the most significant, says Anderson. Loaned by the Crowther family (Paul Emlyn Crowther was the drummer in Split Enz from 1974 to 1976), T-shirts include Time and Tide, Kia Kaha, ENZ With A Bang.

“They represent something culturally and historically important to Aotearoa and are in surprisingly good nick for pieces which are more than 40 years old,” says Anderson.

Given the nature of these garments and the lifestyles associated with musicgoers, these items are prone to getting thrashed. Worn and washed again and again.

“Band T-shirts tend to be bought because you love an artist, so the tees get absolutely worn to death. Some of the shirts we’ve collected up are so thoroughly well-worn, they are almost like lace, so handling and displaying them has definitely had some challenges. Being pieces of fabric they are not as robust as some other music artefacts, but are still an important part of New Zealand band’s visual histories.”

Most of the shirts in the archive came from fans. “We’ve had some amazing collections shared with us, like John Anderson from Songlines Across NZ who is a massive local music fan and archivist, Steve Newall and Sarah Thomson provided some brilliant pieces for display as well,” says Anderson. “The Music Commission staff have also definitely proved themself as excellent hoarders of tees.”

Bands were tracked down to identify the artists who designed the T-shirts.

The small, homespun nature of New Zealand’s music industry has made our T-shirts particularly interesting, and artists still deploy a DIY approach to their designs, working with local illustrators.

NZ Music Month Threads of Sound Band T-shirt Exhibition. Photo / Nico Rose
NZ Music Month Threads of Sound Band T-shirt Exhibition. Photo / Nico Rose

Many create motifs themselves — and Anderson says it would surprise people how prevalent this is. “So many musicians are visual artists too — there are some incredible paintings and artworks by band members which have become album covers and T-shirts over the years.”

All of these and more can be found online in the digital archive. The gallery will be updated throughout May, and the plan is for it to be live for the rest of the year at least. Anyone can contribute a submission: tag a picture of your T-shirt on Facebook or Instagram with either #nzmusicmonth or #threadsofsound, or email photos to

So far there’s The Mutton Birds, Lawrence Arabia, Mokotron, The Exponents, Betchadupa and more.

What else will be unearthed? Is there some old Dam Native or Suburban Reptiles merch out there, or more contemporary collectors’ items from artists like Melodownz and Soft Plastics?

T-shirts are a big part of NZ Music Month. It has a relationship with AS Colour, which includes fundraising for MusicHelps — all the proceeds from sales of this year’s official merch T-shirts (one limited-edition design is by talented artist Callum Rooney) go to the charity. And there’s a just-launched competition, Tee Me Up!, which invites active local bands to enter an original T-shirt design before May 24, the winner receiving 50 shirts printed with their design.

All the proceeds from NZ Music Month's official merch T-shirts are donated to the charity MusicHelps. Photo / Nico Rose
All the proceeds from NZ Music Month's official merch T-shirts are donated to the charity MusicHelps. Photo / Nico Rose

Merch is more important than ever. It provides an important revenue stream at a time when musician’s incomes are being squeezed by reduced album sales, streaming platforms, and wider economic pressures. “Most of the time, when you buy merchandise the majority of the money goes directly to the band, so it’s a great way to support the artists,” says Anderson, who adds that coincidentally Friday, May 3, is both NZ Music T-Shirt Day and Bandcamp Friday in the US, so from 7pm New Zealand artists will receive 100 per cent of the sale price of merch purchased on

It’s reason enough to pick up a new T-shirt or two; your own slice of New Zealand music culture, and piece of future history.

What’s Anderson’s holy grail? “There’s a Herbs shirt Kanoa Lloyd wore on The Project for NZ Music T-Shirt Day a couple of years ago I have been keeping my eye out for,” she says. “And one day I will get my hands on a Lord Echo Japan tour tee.”

The ‘Threads of Sound’ pop-up exhibition is on from 10am to 6pm on Friday, May 3, and Saturday, May 4, and from 10am-4pm on Sunday, May 5. 215 Karangahape Rd, Auckland.

Emma Gleason is the deputy editor of lifestyle and entertainment (audience), and has worked on Viva for over four years, contributing stories on culture, fashion and media. She and Viva writer Madeleine Crutchley braved the rain to attend the ‘Threads of Sound’ launch; Gleason appreciated the Tuatara T-shirt, while Crutchley liked the one from Earth Tongue. They both adore archives and exhibitions.

More music

Cool albums, in-depth profiles and fascinating features.

Kacey Musgraves is closer to fine. Her fifth album is a study in quiet thoughtfulness rooted in gratitude.

The Taite Music Prize red carpet. All the glamorous looks From the 2024 awards.

The sensory, surreal making of Aldous Harding’s sound. Matthew Crawley meets Aotearoa’s most uncompromising export.

Share this article: