Forget illustrious, complicated dresses, or painstakingly-constructed three piece suits, the real star of Milan fashion week was the humble tank top. A staple in every wardrobe, the white tank top is a symbol of the norm core era, which was all but forgotten in the midst of the post-pandemic dopamine dressing rush.
But where did they actually originate? Well, back in the day, it seems the tank top took its origins from swimming suits. Conservative historical social dressing norms dictated that swimmers should cover up, hence the tank top became the fashion of choice for its functional and practical quality. As times progressed though, the tank top came to symbolise something far more unsavoury. First being associated with hyper-‘macho’ men (think Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire), by the 80s and 90s this association had spiralled, leading to the tank top having forged an altogether inappropriate reputation for itself, one which earned it the pseudonym of a ‘wifebeater’. Thanks to this association, the tank top slowly faded into obscurity for the majority of the 00s and early 2010s in fashion – that was until the meteoric rise of ‘normcore’ took hold.
Characterised by its love for unpretentious, unisex clothing such as baggy, stonewash jeans and an oversized white tee, normcore reigned for a good five years in the industry. It seemed the tank top was back, and now in fashion. It became a staple of the easily recognisable yet easily replicable model ‘off-duty’ look, as well as working its way into every (capsule) wardrobe there was. However – all ‘norm’ things must come to an end, and the last couple of years with their various lockdowns forcing a dressier side out to play. Think the recent return of neons, clashing prints and textures, and the rise of the unconventional silhouette. However, as trend cycles become shorter and shorter, we seem to have already gone full circle, and back into the comforting throes of minimalist dressing.
But there’s more to normcore than meets the eye. Whilst it became somewhat of a buzzword when it first appeared in the ‘10s, it was rarely defined. At its core though (pun intended), normcore is about authenticity, and a rejection of the maximalist, extra side of fashion. With the term first circulating in New York’s K-Hole agency, the movement came to symbolise finding comfort in following the crowd. It was no longer cool to be different, it was cool to reject ‘difference’ as a trend. Meta.
Take Milan Fashion Week. Prada, Prada, one of the week’s major players, opened its AW22 show with Kaia Gerber wearing a classic white tank top, only updated with the brand’s triangle logo hardware detailing. Speaking to the show’s cyclical nature, the same look closed the show – except this time, on Hunter Schafer. Then came Bottega. All eyes were on Bottega Veneta this season, thanks to it being the first season that new creative director Matthieu Blazy took the helm of the house. This collection also drew attention to the white tank as an it-garment although this one was crafted from leather, whilst setting the tone for what would be a cohesive and considered body of work from Blazy for Bottega.
However, fashion is no stranger to the humble tank top. We have seen the garment be reworked and reconfigured throughout the last few decades on the runway. Helmut Lang, a frontrunner in the minimalist chic game, debuted an all white look including the staple tank top on the runway in 1999, and almost every brand produces an iteration of it at some point in their career. Y/Project subverted the classic design by adding a strap collar detail, whilst Off-White took the tank top and added a circular cut out in the middle, updating the traditional silhouette with its signature streetwear-focused flair for SS20.
Celebrities and tank tops have gone hand-in-hand, too. Remember Justin Bieber’s ‘Journals’ era? As well as signalling the singer’s move away from the baby-faced Biebs the world had to come to know, this era was synonymous with him wearing a simple tank top – which soon became his garment of choice. Borrowing from Hip-Hop culture, we can see where he got his inspiration: Lil Wayne has been a long time tank-top sporter, and in his early days, Eminem would rarely be seen without one. Fast forward to the normcore era, and models such as Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner have been known for re-popularising the garment. It really has been about.
Seen on everyone from certified fashion icon Zendaya, to supermodels off (and on) duty, it seems that the white tank has become the staple of the fashion season once again, and that normcore and its prevalence in celebrity culture has assured that it will soon be making its way back into circulation. Perhaps it’s in reaction to the aforementioned pandemic-induced maximalism, or perhaps it’s just another trend cycle playing out. But most probably, the return of the tank top can be seen in response to one of fashion’s biggest comebacks, set to take place this year.
The queen of chic minimalism, Phoebe Philo is set to return to fashion with an eponymous label later on this year. Known for transforming Céline with understated and quintessential design codes, Philo’s return to fashion is projected to catalyse an industry-wide shift, a return to minimalism. With such a varied history at the intersections of celebrity, high fashion and Hip-Hop culture, the prevalence of the white tank top at Milan Fashion Week may just be signalling the beginning stages of a return to normcore.
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