Does the very idea of sporting this season's dare-to-bare tops have your stomach in knots? An editor finds a way to wear the trend without going belly-up
No f--king way. That pretty much constitutes a complete, verbatim transcript of my thoughts upon first glimpsing the tops Miuccia Prada sent down her runway for spring. Don't get me wrong-I, like everyone else, loved the show. As someone born and raised in New York City by a working mom who favored power suits in the '80s, I felt that Prada's parade played into the same lifelong '60s-suburban-housewife fantasy that has been on particularly high alert since season one of Mad Men. Those cool car coats. Those perfectly pleated skirts. Those chic clutches. And then, wham! Just as Miuccia and I were getting along, those tops threw me for a loop. They were so…cropped. (Bandeaus, to be precise-but who's focusing on a missing strap or two when five key inches of stomach are exposed?) And Mrs. Prada wasn't the only one daring us to bare-some portion of the midriff was on display on the runways of Donna Karan, Nina Ricci, Proenza Schouler, and Jason Wu, too.
Miniskirts, backless dresses, plunging V-necks: We meet each of these skin-showing silhouettes on a sliding scale of reluctance, depending on our features and flaws (imagined or actual). At some point we've all found ourselves on the short end of the style stick-waiting out a trend, knowing the fashion tides will eventually turn in our favor (and biding our time until it's time to proudly exhibit our exquisite collarbone/biceps/knees). But no matter how slim or toned one's midsection may be, the notion of exposing it is, it's safe to say, universally terrifying. I'll wager you've never heard anyone-anyone-utter the words I'm so excited cropped tops are back!
What Made Crop Tops Popular Before
Which might be why they don't come back that often: The look was first popularized in the '60s by the likes of Sally Field's longboard-loving teenager on Gidget and Barbara Eden's gauzily dressed bombshell on I Dream of Jeannie. (Bonus trivia: Eden was not allowed to show her navel on network television, so costume designers raised the waistband on her genie pants to conceal it. Poof! Midriff.) Over the following decades, it morphed into various timely incarnations: the tied, man-tailored shirts and high-rise jeans of the '70s (Taxi Driver); the ripped T-shirts over leggings or lace ra-ra skirts of the '80s (Desperately Seeking Susan); the ubiquitous baby-doll tees of the '90s (Reality Bites). Come to think of it, with genies, slackers, and con artists as its spokespeople, it's no wonder the look hasn't caught on with more recent generations. Then, of course, you have the aughts' attempt to kill the look once and for all-or at least its runway potential-with Britney Spears' "I'm A Slave 4 U" sliver.
Why They're Actually Classier Than Ever
But this season's iteration, it's worth noting, is unlike any of its forebears. Paired with high-waisted skirts, ladylike cardigans, and dainty shorts, spring's crop of crops are downright classy; the best version to be served up in years, they have an actual shot of making it into the mainstream. And many of them expose a relatively modest swath of the body: a scant three to six inches of rib cage.
Why, then, did the sight of such a demure display provoke in me such an abrupt-and complete-rejection? I took this trend as a personal affront, with a reaction that reminded me of the excellent Seinfeld episode in which Elaine is so irked by the male attention her friend gets for going braless that she plots to sabotage her by buying her a bra for her birthday. The "gift" backfires; the friend wears the undergarment as a top-one so irresistible that Kramer, driving by, crashes his car. "The woman is walking around in broad daylight with just a bra on," Elaine seethes. "She's a menace to society!"
Like Elaine's busty buddy, the women trooping down Prada's runways were clearly in possession of something I do not have: serene confidence, an aplomb that seemed to shout, "Yes, my stomach is showing. What's the big deal?" I know, I know-they're models. But still, they were throwing down the style gauntlet. And I? Well, I responded to the challenge in a way that Prada probably never anticipated: by belting out karaoke in a seedy dive bar in the East Village. But before I get to that….
I Decide To Give It a Whirl
Most of us adhere to a very strict uniform, whether or not we're aware of it. I didn't notice my own limited wardrobe range until last winter, when a friend sent out an invitation to come to a party dressed as someone else on the guest list. (Terrible theme; the novelty wears off in seven seconds.) But apparently, based on what was widely agreed to be my friend's "dead-on" impression of me, my uniform consists of skinny jeans, ballet flats, and some variation of the boxy top, all in navys and blacks. I've long told myself that this ensemble is very model-off-duty, but if I were to dig deeper, it's also designed to divert attention, not attract it. In my defense, this look works; it's not bad, it's just exceedingly quiet. But the message was clear: I needed to change things up a bit. Why not start at the deep end?
I lined up my test-drive options. In terms of the season's offerings, all crops are not created equal. The spectrum ranges from the corset-style topper seen at Donna Karan (almost a shirt) to the unapologetic bra-as-daywear at Nina Ricci (look Mom, no shirt!).
I opted for Prada, which offered a midway point between these two poles. The solid black bandeau, in fact, on the premise that it would look somehow conservative (a thought which, in retrospect, was completely moot).
Putting It On
When it arrived at my desk, the top proved even smaller than I'd imagined. At two and a half inches-I measured!-it looked more like one of those cloth headbands one might wear to the gym (also, incidentally, a Prada favorite) than something one would use to cover an entire erogenous zone.
I waited until most of the office had cleared out for the day and tried it on in the ladies' room, along with a high-waisted pleated red Prada skirt. I had a lot riding on this supporting piece-namely, that it would somehow meet the bandeau completely, leaving a mere centimeter of flesh exposed.
No such luck. Yes, it covered those tricky lower abs, but it still left three inches of key real estate exposed. I realize that the fluorescent lights weren't doing me any favors, but cowering in my office bathroom, I looked like a derelict streaker on a rerun of Cops, with a censor's black bar across my chest. Leaving the stall-let alone the building-was unimaginable. But was I really going to be so easily defeated?
I Take the Crop Top Challenge
I needed a confidence boost stat-and I had just the way to get one. In the past, whenever a situation has called for a surge of courage, I have made a point of having my naturally unruly, wavy hair blown out. Graduations, weddings, job interviews-no joke-when I took my SATs. (No offense to empowered curly-hair wearers, but, for me, straight and sleek gets my head right.) So, with this challenge as well, I started at the top.
Next, I designated a wingman (no blow-out would get me out in a cropped top alone)-my trusty college-friend neighbor-and a location: our neighborhood bar. Mind you, I recently relocated to Manhattan's least cool neighborhood, Murray Hill. It's convenient and clean but devoid of all charm and chock-full of less-than-fashionable postgrads who don't know their Nina Ricci from their North Face. Needless to say, this would be the first time that runway-fresh Prada would make an appearance in this social backwater, but what my experiment lacked in local color it would make up for in convenience: The bar was close enough to home to flee in case of a wardrobe malfunction or panic attack.
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Straight-haired and as prepared as I could be, when darkness fell I donned my bandeau and my red skirt, plus sensible black pumps (an open-toe platform would have been preferable, but these were my one concession to winter). I also brought along something I'd never have worn this look without-but then, neither did the models at Prada-a cardigan. With its added coverage, only four square inches of midriff were exposed.
Not even out the door, I had already discovered one of the major drawbacks of this look: It makes sitting almost impossible. There's no pretty way to phrase it; no matter how one contorts oneself, skin inevitably rolls over a high waistband. The best you can do is sit up with yogic precision, as if, as they say on the mat, a string is pulling up your spine. Add to this the total mental focus it takes to keep from fidgeting in this state, and you're well on your way to a complete mind-body workout.
Undaunted, we walked into the bar and bellied up, so to speak. In truth, it took me some 20 minutes and one and a half glasses of wine to work up the nerve to actually remove my coat. I was paralyzed by the idea that the minute I took it off, everyone and everything would somehow come to a grinding, cinematic halt. But when it finally came time for the big reveal…nothing. No one turned around. I received nary an odd look-not a double take. Not a stare. If anything, the oddest thing about my appearance was my suspiciously (unsexily) ramrod-straight posture.
After about 15 minutes, the lack of attention ceased to be a relief and became an annoyance. What does a girl have to do to get noticed around here? Off came the cardigan. Still, nada. Eventually the bartender offered, "That's a neat shirt."
And then it hit me: This look isn't inherently sexy. Most of the skin exposure involved is G-rated. The experience is far more about the wearer than the viewer, and in this regard it is pure Prada-the work of a designer who once wove tiny knives and forks into an evening gown, a woman whose mission is to provoke the mind as much as the libido. Had I been so caught up in the reaction of others that I'd totally missed the point?
Still, the accomplishment-if not the pleasure-of mastering it was, for me, proof that I could stomach showing my stomach. No small victory.
And it did get me thinking. About all those meek blacks, navys, and grays in my wardrobe. About all the trends I'd sat out because I didn't like X or Y about myself.
A week later, I found myself singing karaoke with coworkers; sure, I was fully clothed, but I was doing something I'd never have had the courage to do pre-crop. In fact, I sang a set that included "C'mon 'N Ride It (The Train)" by Quad City DJ's with such wild abandon that I barely noticed when one of my cohorts pried the mic away from me at the end of my set and said, "Now let's give someone who can actually sing a turn."
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