Joy out of context: Why we loved food-themed clothing in 2023

Deviled Egg shirt on a picnic blanket Photo illustration by Salon/Katie Kimmel/Getty Images
Deviled Egg shirt on a picnic blanket Photo illustration by Salon/Katie Kimmel/Getty Images

​​I've unintentionally made a professional uniform out of a black crewneck sweatshirt emblazoned with STEAK DIANE in yellow heat-pressed letters, arranged slightly askew. In the past two months alone, I appeared on a taped podcast interview while wearing it; attended a small media dinner at a buzzy new restaurant in Portland, Oregon; and sat for a profile interview with a Northwestern University graduate student.

I have zero personal connection to the dish steak Diane, which consists of pan-fried steak served in a piquant sauce made from pan drippings, cream, Cognac, shallots and Worcestershire or Dijon mustard. Purportedly named for Diana, the goddess of the hunt, it might have originated in 1930s London, where it was flambéed tableside in a most theatrical display. These sorts of anecdotes come in handy whenever I wear this shirt, by the way, because everyone I come into contact with assumes I’m an expert on steak Diane and peppers me with questions.

But how come this out-of-context assemblage of food-related words appeals to me?

“I feel like food is just a really easy and positive way to connect with people,” said Katie Kimmel, the California-based artist who made the shirt. “The thing is, what I’ve noticed from wearing my own shirts is people just say it out loud at you.”

Kimmel didn’t set out to become known for food-themed shirts, either. Her usual artistic medium is ceramics, which she shapes into whimsical, googly-eyed animal vases and trinket plates. Then about six years ago, her best friend gave her a heat press, and she and her husband thought it would be fun to spell out their favorite foods on a couple of t-shirts. She posted an Instagram story of one emblazoned with “linguine and clams,” and almost immediately people started asking if they could order one.

“It’s so funny that this is what I’m associated with because it’s so, like, straightforward,” she said. “I always get a kick out of things that are so literal and that’s kind of what this is.”

Culinary motifs have appeared in clothing design for almost a century; in 1937 Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli created a lobster dress with Spanish artist Salvador Dalí in the midst of the Surrealist art movement. But food as fashion has soared to new heights over the past five years, thanks mostly to social media. A statement puffer coat printed with bowtie pasta by designer Rachel Antonoff went viral last winter. Dutch designer Rommy de Bommy creates startlingly convincing burnt toast and birthday cake handbags. California designer Lisa Says Gah peddles an entirely tapas-themed collection with dresses, shirts and pants patterned with prawns, cheese, wine and olives. (In fact, last year I waited four months to receive one of their t-shirts, which features a strategically placed pair of clams.) Most of these can be purchased with a few clicks, straight from Instagram.

Perhaps it’s a little on the nose that I’m a food writer whose wardrobe consists of a few too many food-themed pieces, like a crossing guard getting really into wearing variations on the mesh safety vest. But I find food clothing to be a little shot of whimsy to the arm. It feels good to leave the house in a shirt that says “hot sandwich” because you know it will make at least one person smile when they see it. Food writer Naomi Tomky wrote in a piece for the "Huffington Post" that publicly wearing a hot-pink playsuit with bananas all over it also helped liberate her from a lifetime of self-consciousness about her weight.

“Where I expected raised eyebrows and silent judgment, I instead saw spontaneous smiles,” Tomky wrote. “When [people] got close enough to see the bananas, it instantly brought them happiness ― and me compliments. Far fewer reactions than I feared ― none, in fact ― seemed tinged with the fatphobia for which I’d long honed a sensitive radar.”

Kimmel’s favorite part of the process is coming across a fun food phrase or reminding herself of something delicious to put on a shirt, like mozzarella sticks or lava cake. She finds inspiration in all kinds of places: at restaurants, bookstores and estate sales, the latter of which she scours for Kiwanis club and church cookbooks. Sometimes in the middle of the night an appealing dish will come to her and she’ll add it to the notes app on her phone. She recently read a few out loud to me that sounded like a gloriously mundane piece of postmodern poetry: “lettuce wraps,” “scrambled egg,” “bloody Mary,” “puff pastry,” “hard candy,” “light beer.”

Reciting them aloud is essential to the process, because the words have to roll off the tongue for maximum effect — all the better if they contain therein a double entendre. “I feel like if it’s a tongue-twister, you’re going to be there all day while the guy at the meat counter is trying to work out what’s on your shirt,” she said.

Indeed, beyond the delight that comes with taking a sartorial stance in favor of steak Diane, food-themed clothing makes for far more evocative and personal small talk than the “14 million, perfectly fine” conversations one might have about the weather, as Kimmel pointed out.

“I made a one-off lasagna shirt and wore it to the grocery store, and the cashier told me she makes lasagna with cottage cheese, which is another divisive food that’s having a moment right now,” Kimmel said. “But the second I got in my car I had to call a friend and tell her about it. I think about that woman and her crazy lasagna all the time.”