Merely hearing the word “crop top” caused me to involuntarily stop eating from my bag of potato chips.
My mind immediately fills with images of Gwen Stefani’s perfect abs in her signature crop tops paired with low-waisted track pants or Kendall Jenner’s supermodel physique elegantly decorated in a black-tie crop top gown at Cannes.
The crop top has become undeniably prevalent this summer, even among women who don’t grace red carpet premieres or have their own fleet of personal trainers and pilates instructors.
My friends and I share an immediate feeling of panic and horror of the garments. “They are the worsttttt,” a friend angrily typed out over gchat at the mention of crop tops.
One mother recently posted a scathing Amazon review of her daughter’s crop top, with a picture of the offending item stretched over the body of the family’s cat.
Yet, apparently enough women disagree with dissenters to keep the crop top on shop shelves.
Walk the streets of New York. Stroll into an Urban Outfitters. Crop tops are not just for 1990s pop singers and waifish suburban teens. Women of all shapes, ages, and sizes are making one of the most polarizing garments one of the most popular for summer 2015.
The crop top has been a summer special for decades, but its cache and stylishness has waxed and waned.
But the crop top has been around longer than the Material Girl has been alive.
“History definitely repeats itself. I found the crop top went back to the 1940s,” celebrity stylist Sara Paulsen told the Daily Beast. She found examples of Hollywood starlets like Olivia de Havilland and Lauren Bacall wearing crop tops, even as evening wear in some cases.
“I have a picture of my grandma in a crop top and shorts that she sent to my grandpa during World War II. She’s standing by the mailbox and asking ‘Why no mail?,’” my friend and crop top fan, Melissa Perry, told me.
Perry treasures that image, and the history is part of the reason she enjoys wearing the crop top. “I like them because they are this throwback item,” said Perry, who is a singer but also regularly models.
While the crop top never left the fashion scene, they came back in a big way in the 1990s, especially in the world of pop singers.
“Whether it was sporty or schoolgirl, it was like ‘Let’s make it a crop,’” said Paulsen, citing Spears’ 1998 “Hit Me Baby One More Time” music video.
In the first decade of the 21st Century, the crop top became associated with the popularity of low-rise jean. The subtle flash of skin became a whole swath of flesh, belly-button and all.
For this reason, the crop top implicitly necessitated only the most perfectly toned abdominal muscles.
At the same time, these crop top ensembles also suggested something a bit unsophisticated, never quite dissociating from bubblegum pop singers and high school girls.
“I think they are regarded as rather juvenile, a kind of teenager thing,” said Perry.
Liz, a worker at a clothing shop in New York City’s West Village, is the ripe old age of 24. Yet, she feels strongly about wearing longer crop tops that show less skin than the young’uns choose.
“I feel there’s a different style of crop top depending on your age,” she said. “Younger girls wear them all the time because they’re tiny.”
Emphasis on “tiny” or, in actuality, skinny. Crop tops look effortlessly sexy—if you’re really thin.
For the rest of us, the midriff baring shirt takes a lot of styling, so as not to appear like a flabby wannabe TRL performer.
Case in point, when I tried on a white turtleneck crop top with mid-rise jeans, I resembled Britney Spears in the 1999 “Sometimes” music video—if she had suffered a massive swelling allergic reaction moments before the shoot.
It suffices to say I did not feel good about myself in a crop top, which points to the most important part of pulling it off: confidence.
“You’ve got to be ambitious enough to own the look,” said Bella, a 21-year-old coworker of Liz’s.
Few fashion items test your ego like a crop top. Incorporating the shirt into an ensemble that won’t subsume you with self-doubt is like throwing a few hurdles into a 400-meter dash.
Every crop top proponent I spoke to was a big believer that any and everyone should wear one, regardless of their age or body type.
“People like to throw out rules. If you have a body like this, you can’t wear that. It’s a weird roadmap that leads to a boring outfit,” said Paulsen, who has worked with actresses that do not fit into the rail-thin category, like Mindy Kaling.
While Paulsen doesn’t style her anymore, Kaling has long been a fan of the crop top.
She wears the look well, though again, that may have to do with her confidence factor. Of the time she was praised for wearing a crop top, Kaling bitingly told Jimmy Kimmel, “Some people were like, ‘She’s just so courageous!’ Aren’t surgeons courageous?”
Kaling is right of course, but if you approach crop tops nervously, take comfort knowing that there are a lot of ways to wear one if you don’t want to flash a lot of flesh.
Every crop top fan I spoke to recommended wearing the shirt with high-waisted pants, shorts, or skirts to minimize the skin shown.
“I think crop tops are super cute, but I always cover the belly button. That’s one of those areas where it’s almost like the nipple. It [the belly button] takes things too far, at least for a red carpet,” said Paulsen.
More precisely, “there is a one-to-two inch zone of skin that’s appropriate,” she said.
For every sexily-styled crop top there are questionable choices like Katie Boulter’s outfit for the Mr Holmes movie premiere in London.
Bella said that although she loves crop tops, she tries to show minimal, if any skin.
When I interview her, less than half an inch of skin is showing, but even this amount is a bit much for her. “Personally, I don’t like to show a lot. It’s why I’m wearing a flannel now,” she said.
While it may be comforting to know you can wear a crop top without baring Miley Cyrus’ amount of skin (or having her toned body), there is also something to be said for letting it all hang out.
“I remember I walked into a shop, and I saw a guy who was heavy-set and hairy wearing a crop top. It just made me happy,” said Perry.
Although I can’t say I feel comfortable enough to wear the crop top in public, I have a new admiration for the way it challenges you to reject your biggest insecurities and embrace yourself in totality.
“I think every girl who buys a crop top is worried about if she’s fit enough or toned enough or if some girl who is more conventionally attractive could pull it off better,” said Perry. “I think these things, too, and they are all really upsetting. We just need to push them out of our head.”