The Dress Code: The Tube Top’s Radical Potential and Why Liking Fashion Isn’t Unfeminist

Feminine presenting person in a black tube top that says "beyond the binary"
Beyond the Binary tube top by BeccaLove. Available on Etsy.

Dear Dismantlers, Why do tube tops exist?!

Suzanne Somers wearing a tan tube top and red pants
Pre-Chrissy Suzanne Somers sporting a classic tube top.

This question might have been a joke, but we’re answering it anyway because it’s fun. Our modern idea of the tube top has a pretty specific history. Apparently, in 1971, Iranian-born designer Elie Tahari, then 19 and recently arrived in the U.S., got a hold of some cheap tubes of fabric, produced through a manufacturing error. He thought the look— “puckered, Indian-print gauze shot through with elastic” —fit with the “modern hippie girl” aesthetic that was popular in New York (and everywhere else) at the time. The look caught on, and became an iconic part of ’70s fashion. So, of course, it was one of the styles to return in the 1990s when everyone was going for a half ironic Dazed and Confused look. And now that the’70s and the ’90s are both “in,” it makes sense that tube tops would come back around too.  

Milla Jovovich in retro purple tube top and fringed vest smoking on the hood of a car
Milla Jovovich in Dazed and Confused (Linklater 1993)

But of course, the style didn’t really emerge out of thin air. The bandeau top had been around for decades, and the use of various forms of fashionable breast binders can be observed as far back as ancient Greece.

Ancient Roman women Lookin Good and Workin It Out!

So here’s what’s interesting about tube tops: they are a strangely contradictory item of clothing. On the surface, they’re associated with hyper-feminine sexiness—to be blunt: with boobs (the Brits call them boob tubes). Suzanne Somers wore dozens of them as Chrissy on Three’s Company. And the NYT piece cited earlier ends with a discussion of the style’s perennial popularity in Second Life porn scenarios (neat). And yet, if you look at periods when bandeaus are especially popular, it usually corresponds to times when women are trying to look more masculine or androgynous. In the 1920s, women wore something under their clothes that looked a lot like the modern tube top, but they wore it to minimize their breasts and get the “boy” look. In the 1940s, when bandeau swimwear came into fashion, women were taking over “masculine’” jobs at home while “the boys” fought in World War II. The popular “feminine” silhouette then was broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped. In the ’70s a massive economic recession and the rising second wave feminist movement resulted, again, in unprecedented numbers of women moving into “traditionally masculine” jobs (for a fraction of the pay, and with no expectation they’d quit doing the “lady stuff,” but still). The world might not have been ready to see women as equals, but maybe, through fashion, they were attempting to see themselves that way?

Black and white still of Dorothy Lamour in a bandeau top and sarong
Dorothy Lamour in a bandeau top inspired by/appropriated from Pacific Island style.

Yes, tube tops fit with the whole braless, free love aesthetic of the swinging ’70s. But they also fit with ’40s revival that was happening in high fashion, and the implied masculinity of that silhouette. In the ’90s, androgyny and blurred gendered boundaries were also part of the fashion zeitgeist.    

digital blonde woman with very large breasts modeling a black tube top
Just one of millions of totally lifelike tube tops you can buy in the Second Life marketplace.

So, maybe, seen through a heteronormative “male gaze,” tube tops are conventionally sexy…I guess because they seem like such a precarious cover? But in reality, they aren’t especially “conventionally” flattering because they act more like flattening devices. The only breasts that aren’t at least partially squished and pushed downward by tube tops are augmented to never squish or droop, or they are digital fantasies. Maybe their return in the 2010s has as much to do with our current awareness of gender fluidity as it does with nostalgia. The world may still be struggling with the idea that “woman” means a lot of different things (and not all women have—or want—boobs), but maybe, through fashion, we’re starting to see ourselves that way.

Feminine presenting person in a black tube top that says "beyond the binary"
Beyond the Binary tube top by BeccaLove.

Dear Dismantlers:

I hate to sound like a whiny girl, but I’m so tired of my boyfriend making fun of me for liking clothes! He’s always like, “Look, I just wear what makes me comfortable, and you should too.” Last week we went out and he kept talking crap about my heels (which, BTW, weren’t disrupting his life in any way). I’m trying to find the words to tell him that he’s wrongand that I can be a feminist and still be into fashion!

First things first. Even if you do tell him he’s wrong, he probably won’t listen.

We’re kidding (mostly)! In fact, many people do adjust their beliefs and behaviors with some feedback and if they have a base desire to be good, even if we don’t always see the changes right away. So feel something positive for being in his life and offering him a point of view that might just improve how he moves through the world.

But let’s begin with his point of view. His perspective is aligned with a pretty common sense feminist—and seemingly progressive—idea about fashion. Remember those “bra-burning” feminists? Well, it wasn’t quite the widespread phenomenon popular media made it out to be. But the concept represents how with periods of growing collective feminist consciousness—particularly during the second wave movement—many have shed what they believe to be restrictive objects for regulating and controlling women (i.e. girdles, make-up, and yes, high-heeled shoes). To get an in-depth look, check out Sandra Bartkey’s classic overview here.

The problem with this perspective, though, is that it is pretty one-dimensional and fails to consider the ways that human beings, throughout history and across cultural contexts, have adorned their bodies for all sorts of reasons. And while some of these are gender/women-specific and some might reflect patriarchal inequalities, that doesn’t mean  women are silly or oppressed if they follow norms of fashion and appearance. Unfortunately, though, that notion that women are frivolous or ‘duped’ if they wear a pretty dress is exactly what your boyfriend’s statement reproduces.

Remember: comfort is more complex than just wearing some tennis shoes to head out on the town. Cisgender women especially—but really most of us—are made to feel as if our adornment is what makes us noticable and valuable in the world. Our image-saturated, capitalist society is constantly bombarding us with the notion that we are inadequate, and that we only need to purchase something to bring ourselves up to par. Considering all of that, it’s okay that you want to play with fashion. It’s an option available to us in a social context that often makes us feel unworthy otherwise. And that brings us comfort! Hopefully it does the same for you.

As for your boyfriend? He can fool himself into thinking that he’s not adhering to some kind of stylistic standard with his casual shorts and t-shirt look. That’s his advantage for being born into a world that makes him feel unmarked. The key is to get him to understand that the “comfort” he creates for himself with his clothes is really not that different from the one you create with your snazzy sequinned top. Having physical/bodily comfort is deeply connected to our mental/emotional comfort. His recognition of this point might take him to a new level of feminist awareness. And even if it doesn’t, you already know—which is really the most important thing of all.

Now we want to hear from you! Send your fashion related questions, problems, or half-formed thoughts to Sara at dismantlemag DOT com.

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