#SewcialistsTNTee: Crop Tops—A Brief History and American Social-Political Analysis

I loooovveeee crop tops. As someone who grew up being hyper conscious about their body because of the media, I always felt empowered everytime I saw someone wearing one. Even as I get older I tend to gravitate toward this article of clothing that seems to be about body empowerment. However, the older I get the more I realize that loving your body is a radical notion, according to a lot of societal standards. I think the conversation needs to shift as a reflection of society itself and its harmful notions of HOW someone needs to love themselves in order to be properly perceived as non-threatening in an imperialistic, patriarchal society.

Right now, you might not be asking yourselves “How did these pieces of iconic fashion come to be?” But in case you were, I got you covered.

A young Will Smith wearing a crop top
Early Era Thirst Trap (Photo From: Teen Vogue)

Influenced heavily by Egyptian bedlah, crop tops first made their appearance to a Western audience in inaccurate depictions of Middle Eastern fashion by Western Victorian painters (1). In America, the rise to prominence can probably be attributed to the Chicago World Fair, where belly dance performers introduced the style to a wider audience in 1893. However, it wasn’t until the 1940’s that the style as we know it started taking off. At the same time, WWII saw a rationing of many materials, including fabrics. Crop tops became an easy choice and design solution (2).

Black and white photo of a woman in a crop top and long flowy pants
Egyptian Belly Dancer Fifi Abdou Wearing a Bedlah (Photo From: Alisa Greer Website)

Peak popularity, in America at least, happened during the counterculture era of the 1960’s-70’s, where many people sought to explore new identities from the more restrictive ideologies of the 1940’s and 50’s (3). This also coincides with Second-Wave Feminism and the Women’s rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s (4,5). For men, crop tops became popular in the 1970’s as an ideal of peak masculinity (6). In the 80’s and 90’s, pop-culture media had a HUGE role in both the continuation and fall of crop tops. During this era we saw MANY icons wear crop tops, including but not limited to: Will Smith, Carl Weathers, Prince, Janet Jackson, Esai Morales, and many many more (7).

A young man in a crop top and jeans
Esai Morales Wearing A Crop Top (Photo From: Teen Beat Magazine)

In straight-identifying male fashion, these eras (80’s and 90’s) are pretty much where crop tops would end. I’m not entirely sure when crop tops changed from peak masculinity to one where fragile masculinity took over and self-imposed crop tops as a gay identifier, especially since crop tops were worn by American football players (considered a hyper-masculine sport). For this part, I think it’s specifically important to look into how politics may have helped shape trends.

Cover of Sports Illustrated from December 6, 1971 with football players tackling each other
American Football Players Wearing Crop Tops (Photo From: Sports Illustrated)

In the mid-to-late 1970’s, America saw the Civil Service Reform Act passed and signed into legislation by then president Jimmy Carter. This bill, in theory, would prohibit and end discrimination against homosexuality, but in reality the bill was vague in its definitions (as a lot of bills and legislation tend to be). This was further exacerbated by singer Anita Bryant and her anti-gay rights activism (8). In the 80’s we saw a greater divide between our federal system and gay rights. During this time, the AIDS epidemic was growing rampantly in the gay community, with the government doing nothing but allowing an entire generation of LGBT people and activists die from what they called a “gay disease.” In the 90’s, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was put into place by the Clinton Administration. This essentially made it so that people in the LGBTQ community could serve in the military, as long as they kept their queerness to themselves (9). All these laws served as a way for American politics to appear progressive in terms of LGBTQ rights, without actually doing anything and further disenfranchising the community.

The 90’s and early 2000’s also coincided with looser based clothing, further perpetuated by pop culture and media. We saw the rise of boy bands like NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. Grunge also arose during this time, with similar fashion trends. THIS was the new masculine trend.

Three young people in jeans and layers of tops, none of which are cropped
Jean Me Up, Scotty (Photo From: We Heart It)

All this is to say: American politics and pop-culture media can be seen as having a hand in the fall of feminine presenting clothes on traditional masculine presenting bodies, at least within the country. It could be that as crop tops become more about fashion statements, they were seen as more feminine and therefore more queer (7). America at the time was doing a lot to de-legitimize LGBTQ efforts and coupled with the growth of new pop-culture trends, it could be assessed that crop tops quickly became a gay identifier due to views of what it meant to be masculine at that time.

Two photos, one of two people holding hands at a protest march and one of a person with a distinctive hat and tail in a crowd
Pride During The 70’s (Photo From: BuzzFeed)

Now, we see crop tops becoming slowly more popular again. I can’t say whether this has to do with the LGBTQ community slowly becoming more  accepted, or whether it’s just becoming trendy again as fashion tends to do. However, I think it’s really important to remember where clothing comes from and where it originates, as well as historical implications it had during the time it became popular. A lot of the problems crop tops had back then are still true and alive today. Wearing a crop top is seen as a gay identifier now and, traditionally, only people who are skinny and fit are seen as the “acceptable candidates” for wearing one. Even women are still shamed for showing off their bodies even though other people need to mind their own business and worry about themselves first. 

Personally, I’m not yet mentally ready to wear one in public because you never know when someone is going to yell some homophobic, body shaming slurs at you.

 I think you should wear one if you want. If this particular piece of clothing gives you power, then there’s something to be said for that. And who knows, maybe I’ll wear one soon (with steel toed boots for added protection).

Hello! My name is Christopher and I work as a Production Scientist in San Diego, CA. You can find me @Imthatbrujastitch on Instagram. Sewing was a hobby, but now it’s a passion that I hope can become a career some day.

Citations: 

1: https://daytonabeachbellydance.com/category/belly-dance-history-tradition/#:~:text=In%20the%20West%2C%20the%20costume,to%20authentic%20Middle%20Eastern%20dress.

2.https://startupfashion.com/fashion-archives-history-crop-top/

3. https://www.hercampus.com/school/bucknell/history-crop-top

4. https://www.britannica.com/event/womens-movement

5. https://www.britannica.com/topic/feminism/The-second-wave-of-feminism

6. http://thosegirlss.blogspot.com/2016/07/vintage-files-brief-history-of-men-in.html

7. https://i-d.vice.com/en_us/article/43kyqg/straight-men-crop-tops-90s-80s-fashion

8. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/10/01/how-gay-rights-activists-remade-federal-government/

9. https://www.history.com/news/dont-ask-dont-tell-repeal-compromise


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