The straight male crop top had a brief but wonderful moment in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, however, when the topic of the crop top is breached, as Joseph Longo puts it, “it’s drenched in gay panic”.
The second coming of the crop top happened in recent years, deep into the 2010s. The resurgence has appeared mainly in women’s clothing, even though both the female and male crop top first gained traction in the same time period.
The aerobics craze of the 80s saw many elevating their T-shirt hemlines in a bid to emulate Madonna in Lucky Star and the movie Flashdance. At around the same time, the rise of the male crop top took its cue from athletes, the most traditionally potent manifestation of masculinity.
American college football players’ tearaway jerseys were designed to stop them from being tackled on the field, leaving them with cropped tops by the end of the game. This spread to Hollywood, with the likes of Johnny Depp, Will Smith, and Carl Weathers all sporting crop tops on-screen. Prince also performed onstage in a series of winning crops.
The general male population took to the trend when gyms outlawed being bare-chested. The crop top was the perfect way to get around the ban by showing off their physiques while still technically clothing their upper bodies. Even Nike hopped on the bandwagon and started producing male crop tops.
The crop top for men was a way to show off their muscles – the exact same purpose the tank-top serves today. “The midriff cut extended their silhouette and enhanced the size of their torso and muscles,” says Professor Vicki Karaminas from the School of Design at Massey University, “it was a very masculine gesture, or look”.
How then did an item of clothing that was so deeply rooted in the masculine physique and masculinity itself come to be shunned by the straight male population and thought of as an item of femininity or indicator of queerness?
The death of the straight male crop top came about in waves. A mandate that made full-length jerseys compulsory and outlawed tucking jerseys in in the early 2000s put an end to the on-field crop top. Dr. Shaun Cole, Associate Professor in Fashion at Winchester School of Art, also shared how, post-AIDS, straight men didn’t want to be perceived as gay: “fashion, as well, has traditionally been derided as frivolous and feminine”.
Every time a straight man dons a crop top today, it is either in the context of an environment that encourages experimental fashion, such as music festivals, or taken as a sign of his political progressiveness, thus putting the item out of reach for a majority who don’t want their clothing to be indicative of such a statement.
Women have largely altered perceptions when it comes to the clothing we choose to wear. Since Diane Keaton’s famed turn as Annie Hall, the women’s suit has gone from strength to strength and is now an outfit choice that is as much hers as it is his. It no longer serves as a politically charged gesture or a power move that sparks a dissection of the wearer’s gender and sexuality.
When it comes to clothing, the more freedom of expression that women and the LGBTQI+ community enjoy, the more there appears to be discomfort from straight males about sharing that space and being perceived as effeminate or queer. Even if popular figures such as Jaden Smith and Timothee Chalamet take more liberty with their clothing choices, choosing androgynous pieces or items that are more overtly feminine, their presence in the more progressive fashion-forward sphere makes their choices unlikely to be adopted by the general straight male population anytime soon.
The watery “comeback” of the straight male crop top in the media is used mostly for shock value, as a gag, or as an inference of femininity. A sad legacy for an item that was once celebrated by all, regardless of gender or sexuality.