Crop tops, or “half-shirts,” expose the midriff with a much tighter trim than your average T-shirt (see an example from Rick Owens’ FW19 collection below). But unlike virtually every other ’80s and ’90s menswear trend that has resurfaced over the last decade or so, there has been no big crop top revival.
That said, one of the biggest takeaways from Paris Fashion Week in January was that items traditionally associated with womenswear, such as handbags, were all over the men’s runway — and it feels like we’re on the cusp of cropped shirts following that pattern. After all, in the context of today’s fashion, the potential is all there: the crop top is sportswear, it’s retro, it’s androgynous, and it’s a little ironic.
Crop tops broke into menswear during the ’70s and have come to signify different things at different moments. Take, for example, its history on the football field, particularly college football, where the crop top was introduced unintentionally and even earlier than the ’70s, with tear-away jerseys often losing their lower sections through tackling, leading to exposed abs.
More recently, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott made the cropped jersey his signature look while playing for Ohio State. In 2015, Elliott told USA Today, “I just don’t like how loose jerseys are at the bottom, so I just tuck it up and roll it. I get in trouble for it every once in a while. I’ll have to come out at halftime, pull my jersey down and tuck it in.”
NFL rules mean Elliott’s abs have generally stayed tucked away since he went pro, although that didn’t stop him from rocking a kind of button-up/crop hybrid on the red carpet for NFL Draft Day 2016. Did the look work? Not quite. Does he have the right idea? We’ll leave that up to you.
So what of the actual crop top? The stomach-baring tee hasn’t only been worn by college football players. The crop top is generally perceived as a gendered item, a mildly suggestive fashion choice for women, with all but a few guys electing to keep their navels covered.
However, there have been a few outliers making the look more gender-neutral, with early champions of cropped tees including Lenny Kravitz and Prince. Prince in particular was known for employing an unapologetically androgynous style, cementing his place as an enduring fashion icon.
Other notable mentions go to Johnny Depp, who gave screen time to the look in his debut role in 1984 horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, and to Ewan McGregor in 1996’s Trainspotting. The tightly hemmed tees and shaved head of McGregor’s character Mark Renton encapsulated the ’90s wave of “heroin chic,” a phenomenon that went hand in hand with the scuzziness of grunge and was billed as a reaction to more clean-cut and healthy-looking fashion models in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Crop tops also found a home on the body of another prince. Will Smith could be seen sporting cropped collegiate-style tees in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which aired from 1990 to 1996. Paired with vibrant track pants and a snapback, Smith’s was an iconic ’90s look, one that surely deserves a revival or at least a rack of vintage-inspired options at Urban Outfitters.
Disappointingly, the rapper, actor, and soon-to-be-genie doesn’t feel the same way. Reflecting on his fashion choices in the show, Smith has expressed regret about the style, despite how great it looks. “I blame my friends. You know, you can’t wear a half-shirt on national television,” he lamented to GQ in 2015.
But that was then. Today, Smith’s son Jaden has picked up where his dad left off, proving the apple never falls far from the tree. As well as subtly dismantling gendered fashion by fronting a womenswear campaign for Louis Vuitton, Jaden has been rocking cropped tees since his early teens.
Calvin Klein threatened a crop top revolution when it released a range of tightly cut tees for Spring/Summer 2011 under then-creative director Italo Zucchelli, although it appears the fashion world wasn’t ready. Vogue’s Tim Blanks wrote at the time, “Cutoff tops seemed intended to suggest a gridiron player’s workout wear but instead called to mind the Hulk’s castoffs.” Ouch.
One of the crop top’s biggest contemporary moments came in 2014, when Kid Cudi donned a vermillion terry cloth sleeveless cropped tee at Coachella to a gamut of reactions ranging from horror and confusion to applause and admiration. Cudi styled his tee with a pair of denim shorts, BAPE boxer briefs, and Nike Air Jordan 2s.
But it seems Cudi’s Coachella crop top moment was just that: a moment. Like with Calvin Klein in 2010, perhaps 2014 still wasn’t ready for dudes in crop tops, with the daring retro look failing to fire. But now, in 2019, a few designers are reviving the cropped tee for the post-luxe streetwear era.
Nominated for the 2018 LVMH Prize, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, described in these pages as “the sexiest menswear label in the world right now,” has become an industry favorite through collections that dress up menswear in an unapologetically sensuous and provocative manner. Designer de Saint Sernin, formerly of Balmain, has leveraged the traditional concepts of beauty, elevating menswear into a new realm of glamor — including cropped leather tops.
London-based designer Bianca Saunders has also adopted a fresh and critical perspective of masculinity, black masculinity in particular. Her SS19 collection included tops that were cropped, creased, and styled with wide-fitting athletic pants. Hers is a name to know if simple yet nuanced fashion is your bag.
Finally, unisex New York label Telfar, worn by actor and low-key style god Ashton Saunders on the 2019 Met Gala red carpet, has included cropped off-the-shoulder tank tops in its most recent collection, which can be styled tucked into high-waisted pants that sit above the hips as below for a refreshing and contemporary silhouette.
So it feels like the stars are aligning for a revival of this divisive menswear look. The main thing holding it back are men themselves.
Fashion has been championing retro styles to the point of exhaustion, be it chunky sneakers, straight-leg jeans, or the abundance of ’90s-style sportswear. Crop tops for men were never exactly world-conquering, and only now are they starting to seep through. For another stellar example, check out Danny from PAQ below. It’s probably a matter of time (or until A$AP Rocky wears one) before menswear lets go and embraces the cropped tee with the attention it surely deserves.