Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Boyfriend Shirt

Being in a long-distance relationship means you wear your boyfriend’s shirt a lot, or at least it did for me. During the year my boyfriend and I spent living in different cities, I accumulated three to five shirts of his that I wore with more frequency than anything else in my closet besides my jeans. Each time he visited, I acquired a new shirt that he "accidentally" forgot to pack. It was never an accident. Wearing the shirts was a way to wrap myself up in his presence when he couldn’t be present himself, a balm for my inability to physically reach out over the distance.

It wasn’t a particularly fashionable choice when I wore these shirts in public – the shirts he left were usually his oldest and most worn-in ones; they were softer and they smelled like him but they didn’t look great. They also didn’t fit in the way "boyfriend" clothes are supposed to. Most men are actually not all that different in size from most women, and men’s clothing sizes aren’t actually all that different from women’s clothing sizes. I looked like I was wearing a very slightly too-big shirt that I’d pulled out of a laundry hamper.

But by wearing these shirts I was supposedly participating in a perennially current fashion trend. The "boyfriend clothing" trend, looks "borrowed from the boys" and "steal his jeans" styles have been popping up once again not because it’s fall but because at any time, in any season, some brand wants to tell everybody about boyfriends. It’s definitely not anything new.

Neither is a woman wearing clothes made for men. People like to trace women in menswear to Coco Chanel’s semi-androgynous style, but women had been wearing men’s clothes and incorporating menswear into their personal style since long before Chanel’s crisp white shirts and neat suits. Sarah Bernhardt, a nineteenth century actress whose tabloid-courting fame would be more at home in today’s Kardashian-era world, famously dressed in men’s clothes — it was a gimmick, but a gimmick that inspired hordes of imitators. By the early twentieth century, a woman in beautifully tailored men’s clothes was a recognizable form of glamour, whether Marlene Dietrich’s flawless black tie or Katherine Hepburn striding across a lawn in high-waisted pants.

The trend was, and is, inescapably about social class — whenever images of women in men’s clothes emerge into a mainstream idea of fashion, it’s a very wealthy woman; their wealth and fame protect the wearer, allowing them to publicly act out subversion from within the protective cocoon of money and social status. Men’s clothes on women, yes, but only a tuxedo tailored to a level beyond the reach of just about woman who might get ideas from photos of Dietrich. It’s for similar reasons that so many people incorrectly cite Chanel as the inventor of androgynous style; Chanel’s use of men’s fashion never impacted her traditional presentation of femininity and thus never threatened to give other women permission to do the same.

Popular images of women in menswear up through the 20th century for the most part show similarly meticulous tailoring. This isn’t "boyfriend" clothes yet — no one is trying to look like they just got out of someone else’s bed.

Perfume ads in the ‘90s and early ‘00s showing supermodels in large white dress shirts and nothing else, all the legs and trailing French cuffs, coincide with the onslaught of photos of petite female celebrities wearing men’s jeans. Both contribute to the popularization of "boyfriend" clothes. As off-duty celebrity style grows ever more popular, as we begin to be told not to aspire to look like the rich and famous at their best but — as social media and reality TV welcome us into celebrities’ day to day lives — at their most mundane, sloppiness becomes aspirational.

The boyfriend clothing item, whether jeans or a shirt (it’s pretty much always either jeans or a shirt), is about spontaneity. It’s about happenstance and carelessness and clothing that was left on the floor. It’s about the small ways in which we seek to own one another’s bodies, and about the desire for our relationships with others to leave visible marks on us, to follow us tangible out into the world beyond a private encounter. It’s about telling everybody that you had sex. Its visual reference is to a woman stumbling out of a man’s house in the morning having grabbed the dress shirt he was wearing the night before — it’s titillating because it’s just a little wrong, it’s almost appropriate but not quite.

by Helena Fitzgerald, Racked |  Read more:
Image: Dimitrov/Getty