It may seem like fashion is changing. Contrary to the minimalist era that the industry has been in, new trends have become more experimental and, well, titillating. In traditional everyday wear, you can find skin-baring cuts and sheer stretches (some subtle, some not) of fabric. The subversive and innovative use of neutral tank tops, LBDs and other wardrobe essentials was a hallmark of Neutral Tank Tops and LBDs.
It is obvious. Fashion is currently undergoing a revolution. What does this shift in fashion aesthetics signify? What does the rise in unconventional fashion staples, like bodysuits that look like Swiss cheese or transparent, nipple-revealing tank tops, mean? Agus Panzoni is a fashion consultant and trend forecaster. Panzoni was the first to coin the term “subversive basics” in a TikTok dated April 2021. She describes how traditional staples have “rebelling up to the point where their utility is being lost.”
These pieces are both artistic and anti-utilitarian. They are fashion for fashion’s sake. To make the garment’s original function irrelevant, she points out how designers use cutouts and sheer materials, keyholes, as well as elements of deconstruction.
The plain white tee is no longer comfortable and reliable, but it becomes a transparent top with crisscrossing straps. Panzoni praises Helmut Lang’s work in the latter half of the decade for the way it looks. Panzoni believes that the subversive basics trend was created in response to 2020’s turmoil.
“Lockdown helped me align my priorities with my values.” Panzoni states that they had a very important conversation about mental illness. She also said that she treasured the time with her family, friends and loved ones (virtually or in person). Panzoni also mentions how fashion was used as a means of escape during the pandemic. As people struggled to deal with uncertainty, trends like cottagecore and regencycore, as well as summer camp-core, exploded.
According to the fashion consultant, this is a significant departure from the previous trends that “glorified grind culture and minimalist outfits for productivity” and the sleek look of a working “#GirlBoss,” which she says reflects how people became accustomed to the freedom of working from home during the pandemic.
Although there has been a return to the traditional way of life, not everyone is ready to give up the freedom that comes with working at home. Panzoni states, “As we go back to normal, we realize that we have changed.” A Microsoft study found that 41% of respondents are considering changing their jobs to allow for flexibility and travel. Panzoni explains that this shift in work preferences is linked to a cultural phenomenon, where many people are questioning the long-standing structures of society. She explained that “114 million jobs were lost in the last year, and that the stock market closed 2020 at record highs.”
The stock market is not a sign of economic strength, people are realizing this. Panzoni claims that as the wealth gap grows and the climate-driven natural disasters worsen, many are questioning capitalism and suspect that it is the cause of most of our societal problems. Panzoni then links this growing distrust and suspicion of traditional systems to the subversive basic trend. “After a year of pointing out the absurdities in the systems in place it makes sense that our wardrobe foundations have been challenged.” She concludes that “The shift in cultural perspectives is affecting our ability to express ourselves through clothing, with subversive basics being an early indicator of this change.”
Kingsley Gbadegesin is a Brooklyn-based fashion designer. He believes that last year’s historic fight to ensure racial equality provided the inspiration needed for his brand K.NGSLEY, his eponymous basics label. “I founded my brand during the BLM movement. My identity and my persona were being attacked and it was this fire that motivated me to create K.NGSLEY.”
Gbadegesin draws on his experience at Versace and Celine as well as his work for the grassroots organization On the Ground to “reclaim the Black, queer and femme body” through clothing. Gbadegesin is particularly fond of tank tops.
Tank tops are a classic fashion staple. The top was first introduced in 1935 by Cooper’s Inc as a working man’s undergarment. It eventually became synonymous for conventional masculinity. Cultural iconography (think Marlon Browno in A Streetcar Named Desire), and the horrible moniker ‘wifebeater’ cemented the shirt, specifically a white, ribbed top, as inherently macho. The garment was used as a rebel tool against the dominant gender role.
The LGBTQIA+ community started with the appearance of “Castro clones” in the 1970s. This piece of clothing was used as a tongue-in cheek jab at masculine performance and turned the symbol on its head. Gbadegesin demonstrates that “tank tops have become a notably quer garment” with huge potential for social rebellion. That’s exactly what he pays tribute to with his brand.
Gbadegesin uses unconventional touches such as cutouts and open backs to challenge the tank’s gendered history, while also focusing on the experiences of queer people. According to Brooklyn-based designer, Black, Queer, and Femme people have been a dominant and leading influence on today’s trends. Yet, they are often marginalized and excluded. One example of many that show how Black people and the LGBTQ community have been overlooked for their cultural influence is the Y2K nostalgia.
Paris Hilton’s bubblegum pink velour tracksuits often appear on mood boards dedicated early-aughts style. R&B icon Aaliyah, who pioneered It girl trends such as low-rise, baggy pants and cutout tops, rarely appears. Dapper Dan, a Harlem-based designer, is another who helped to make logomania look mainstream and become an industry-wide trend. His accreditation is often lost in history too.
Gbadegesin, however, hopes that K.NGSLEY will allow Black, Queer, and Femme people to take control of the culture they created and are oppressed by. Gbadegesin says, “Those are people I know and who I want to tell their stories and narratives.” His clothing allows them to claim their space.
Clarissa Larrazabal is a designer who is known for creating bodysuits out of sheer, tangled fabrics. She uses the concept of a basic garment as a way to challenge oppressive social norms. She explains that her work is about the modernization of femininity. Larrazabal explains that her work is inspired by a modern approach to sexy dressing. Larrazabal says: “In my latest collection I was looking into sheer fabric and overexposing the female bodies to a point that it was desexualized form the’male gaze. Circling cutouts sharp edges and translucent layering give rise to a subtle new kind of female sensuality.”
Larrazabal attributes the subversive basics trend to opening up new avenues for exploring sensuality through a less sexualized lens. Larrazabal says that a piece of sheer fabric and cutouts are no longer considered vulgar but subversive. Panzoni expands on fashion’s newfound promiscuity, linking it to the forward-thinking cultural shift that was also caused by the pandemic. “The futuristic undertones and subversive basic speak to last year’s need for escape and our move toward increasingly virtual lifestyles.” The trend forecaster refers to the tech-focused outlook that is taking over the industry.
This phenomenon is evident in the rise in NFTs, virtual fashion showcases and digital avatars. These are all becoming more popular alternatives to in-person experiences. One can wear a completely sheer bodysuit in a virtual world and even photoshop out a nipple, if needed. Panzoni says that IRL lifestyles are not as permissive. Panzoni claims that a pandemic-driven escapist desire to escape is an integral part of the trend. However, she says subversive basics are grounded and real because they allow the wearer to control their appearance. She shares that the best thing about this trend is how you can make it as disruptive or simple as you like. You can either wear a sheer bodysuit alone for a minimalist look or layer it with other basic pieces to create a more complex (and modest) outfit.
Panzoni also points out that “the trend can be easily DIY at home by obtaining materials, jump-starting small collections yourself,” and users are making their own subversive basics on TikTok by using scissors to make pantyhose. They then wear the hosiery to create individualistic tops. In a similar vein, the idea of giving the wearer control over the garment and allowing consumers to create the trend is also subversive. Abstract and high-fashion garments were traditionally reserved for high-end runways. However, subversive basics are now accessible to a avant-garde world. This reaffirms that fashion is not the exclusive club it was once. This rebellious trend serves as a reminder that power, not just in fashion but also in society, is in the people’s hands.