A Plain White Tee Will No Longer Suffice

Welcome to fashion’s subversive revolution.

Courtesy of Clarissa Larrazabal / Victoria Sucre
Model wears Clarissa Larrazabal's tangled bodysuit in white.

You may feel like the winds of fashion are changing direction. In contrast to the minimalist era in which the industry has long resided, the trends from this past spring and summer became more experimental and — well, to put it simply — titillating. Skin-baring cutouts and sheer stretches of fabric — some subtle, others not — were integrated into traditional everyday wear. Neutral tank tops, LBDs, and other items typically thought of as wardrobe basics became subversive and innovative. It's indisputable; fashion is in the midst of a revolution.

But what does this shift in aesthetics mean? What does the rise of unconventional fashion staples — like bodysuits reminiscent of Swiss cheese and transparent, nipple-revealing tanks — represent? Agus Panzoni, a trend forecaster and fashion consultant, has a theory.

Panzoni first coined the phrase “subversive basics” in a TikTok from April 2021 where she describes how traditional staples are now “[rebelling] up to the point of losing their utility.” These pieces are artistic and anti-utilitarian, meaning they’re fashion purely for the sake of fashion. She points to how designers are using cutouts, sheer materials, keyholes, and elements of deconstruction to render the initial function of the garment irrelevant. Your plain white tee becomes a see-through top with crisscrossing straps, no longer the easy-to-wear and reliable garment it once was. The resulting look feels evocative of the sultry, revealing designs of the ‘90s, and Panzoni shouts out Helmut Lang’s work from the latter part of the decade, in particular. Ultimately, however, Panzoni says the subversive basics trend is a niche response to 2020’s tumult.

“Lockdown helped us realign our priorities with our values. We began a very important conversation about mental health, and we treasured the time spent with ourselves, friends, and family (whether virtually or IRL),” Panzoni says. She also references how fashion became a tool of escapism during the pandemic. Trends like cottagecore, regencycore, summer camp-core — basically any “core” that helped the wearer transcend reality — boomed as people tried to cope with the year’s uncertainty. The fashion consultant claims this was a major departure from previous trending aesthetics, which “[glorified] grind culture, minimalist outfits for the sake of productivity,” and the streamlined look of a working ‘#GirlBoss.’ She says this shift in fashion connects to how, during the pandemic, people grew accustomed to the individual agency that working from home allows for.

But now that a somewhat return to traditional life has ensued, not everyone wants to relinquish the control that comes with working from the comfort of their home. “As we go ‘back to normal,’ we realize we have changed,” Panzoni says. According to a Microsoft study, 41% of people are reconsidering their jobs in favor of flexibility and travel. Panzoni links this change in work preferences to an ongoing cultural phenomenon where many are questioning longstanding societal structures. She explains: “114 million jobs were lost last year, while the stock market ended 2020 at record highs. People are recognizing that the stock market does not signal economic strength. As the wealth gap widens and climate-led natural disasters exacerbate, [many] are questioning capitalism and suspect it's the culprit for most of our societal aches,” claims Panzoni.

The trend analyst goes on to connect this growing sense of skepticism and distrust of traditional systems to the subversive basics trend. “After a year that pointed to the absurdities of the systems in place, it makes sense that our wardrobe foundations are getting challenged, too. [The shift in cultural perspectives] is affecting the way we express ourselves through clothing, and subversive basics are an early indicator of this change,” she concludes.

For Brooklyn-based fashion designer Kingsley Gbadegesin, last year’s historic fight for racial equality was the kindling needed to launch his eponymous basics brand, K.NGSLEY. “I started [my brand] in the thick of the BLM movement. My identity and who I am as a person were under attack, and it was the fire that fueled me to start K.NGSLEY,” describes Gbadegesin. The designer draws from his time at high-end fashion houses like Versace and Celine, as well as his work with the grassroots organization On the Ground, to “reclaim and redefine the Black, queer, femme body” through clothing. In particular, Gbadegesin focuses on tank tops.

Tank tops have a long history of being a masculinized fashion staple. First introduced by sock company Cooper’s Inc in 1935 as the working man’s undergarment, the top eventually became synonymous with conventional masculinity. Cultural iconography (think Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire) and the horrific moniker ‘wifebeater’ cemented the shirt — specifically a white, ribbed tank top — as inherently macho. Eventually, however, the garment became a tool for rebelling against the gender role it so intensely symbolized. Starting with the look of ‘Castro clones’ from the ‘70s, the LGBTQIA+ community began to use the piece of clothing as a tongue-in-cheek jab at masculine performance, turning the symbol on its heteronormative head. As Gbadegesin illustrates, “tank tops [have become] a notably queer garment” with enormous capabilities for social rebellion, and that’s precisely what he pays homage to with his brand.

Gbadegesin integrates unconventional touches — asymmetry, cutouts, and open backs — to undermine the tank’s heavily gendered history while simultaneously centering the experiences of queer folk. The Brooklyn-based designer says Black, queer, and femme people have had a predominant and leading influence on today’s trends, and yet they are the ones who’ve been ostracized and pushed away to the margins.

For one example of many that point to how Black people and the LGBTQ community are often unrecognized for their cultural impact, look to the Y2K nostalgia that’s consumed fashion as of late. Paris Hilton and her bubblegum pink velour tracksuits frequently pop up on mood boards dedicated to early-aughts style, while R&B icon Aaliyah — who pioneered It-girl trends like low-rise, baggy jeans and cutout tops — rarely makes an appearance. There’s also Dapper Dan, the Harlem-based designer who helped catapult the heavily branded, logomania look into the mainstream and make it into the industry-wide trend it is today. Unfortunately, his accreditation often gets lost throughout history, too.

With K.NGSLEY, however, Gbadegesin hopes Black, queer, and femme people can take ownership of the culture they helped form and are systemically oppressed by. “Those are the people I know, and who I want telling their own stories and narratives,” says Gbadegesin, and his clothing gives them the opportunities to take up their rightful space.

Similarly, Clarissa Larrazabal, a designer known for her bodysuits made of tangled sheer fabrics, uses the idea of a basic garment to challenge oppressive societal norms. “My work is based on the redefinition of femininity from a modern perspective,” she explains. At the heart of her eponymous fashion brand is a newfound approach to sexy dressing, which Larrazabal has dubbed “intelligent sensuality.” Larrazabal’s work coincides with 2021’s collective desire to head to the nearest party, bare some flesh, and let loose after spending a year inside, but her approach is artful and unexpected.

Courtesy Of Clarissa Larrazabal / Victoria Sucre

Larrazabal elaborates: “In the case of my latest collection, I was looking into sheer fabrics and overexposing the female body to a point where it was desexualized from the ‘male gaze.’ Circling cutouts, sharp edges, and translucent layering give way to a subtle new way of female sensuality,” details the designer. Larrazabal credits the subversive basics trend for opening up opportunities to explore sensuality in a less sexualized lens. “A piece made of sheer fabrics and cutouts is no longer considered vulgar, but rather subversive,” offers Larrazabal.

Panzoni expands upon fashion’s newfound promiscuity by linking it to a forward-thinking, cultural shift that was also brought on by the pandemic. “The futuristic undertones of subversive basics speak to last year’s need for escapism and our move towards increasingly virtual lifestyles.” Here, the trend forecaster references the tech-focused perspective that’s taking over the industry. You’ll find this phenomenon visible in the rise of NFTs, virtual fashion shows, and digital avatars — all of which are becoming increasingly popular alternative options to in-person experiences. “In a virtual world, one can afford to wear a fully sheer bodysuit and photoshop out a nipple if necessary. IRL lifestyles are, unfortunately, not as permissive,” muses Panzoni.

Conversely, while Panzoni says a pandemic-prompted escapist desire is integral to the trend, she claims subversive basics are grounded in reality because their unconventional designs give the wearer control. “What I love the most about this trend is that you can choose how disruptive you'd like to go: You can wear a sheer bodysuit by itself for a nude look, or you can combine it with other basics through layering to construct a more intricate (and modest) outfit,” she shares. Additionally, Panzoni points out “the trend is extremely easy to DIY at home by obtaining materials and jump-starting a small collection yourself.” On TikTok, users are creating their own subversive basics by taking a pair of scissors to pantyhose and wearing the hosiery as individualistic tops.

Coincidentally enough, the concept of giving both the wearer the agency to control the garment and any consumer the option to make the trend for themselves is subversive in its own way, too. Historically, abstract and high-fashion garments were reserved solely for exclusive runways and high-end spaces. Subversive basics, however, are accessible portals into an avant-garde world, reaffirming that fashion is no longer the elitist club it once was. The rebellious trend is a reminder that power — not only in terms of fashion but in greater society as well — is and always will be in the hands of the people.

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Uncertain and uneven recovery expected following unprecedented labour market crisis. ILO. (2021, January 25).

Work trend Index: Microsoft's latest research on the ways we work. Microsoft. (n.d.).