In 2003, ABC paid Diane Sawyer actual money to ask a 22 year-old Britney Spears hard-hitting questions like “What happened to your clothes?” The 20/20 anchor’s very special interview began with a close-up shot of Britney performing, but viewers didn’t see her face. Instead, an entire team of adults decided to splice together footage the singer’s bare midriff, framing it as one of the biggest dangers facing America’s youth.
“Ladies and gentleman, the most valuable square inch of real estate in the entertainment universe,” Sawyer says in a voiceover, as the camera pans to a belly button ring.
Sawyer’s condescending line of inquiry looks pretty awful today, especially in light of the recent New York Times documentary detailing the media’s brutal treatment of young women in the early-aughts. And all the fuss made over Spears’ tummy recalls another truly asinine culture war of that era. At the time, to some, the popularity of crop tops and low-rise jeans heralded an apocalypse.
And today I bring bad news to those who make a point of caring about other people’s stomachs: Midriff is back!
Blame it on ’90s-obsessed TikTok teens or the fact that masks cover half of our face and we need a new swath of skin to bare. No matter the culprit, there is an undeniable trend. Mugler, Mui Mui, and Chanel have all added crop tops to their fall collections. Lizzo, Rihanna, Dua Lipa, and just about every Kardashian-Jenner has been pictured in one, or a few, in recent weeks.
Vogue has studiously documented the “sexy cardi trend,” aka wearing a “barely-buttoned cardigan as a top.” It’s a style with evangelists like Emily Ratajkowski and Katie Holmes, who are frequently photographed on the streets of New York repping the look.
And of course there is Britney Spears herself, facing fresh new scrutiny—and belated sympathy—in the light of new revelations about her father’s shady conservatorship. It appears that Diane Sawyer’s interrogation did little to quell Spears’ penchant for crop tops. She frequently posts videos which show the star dancing in her empty mansion wearing the look with athletic shorts, her belly button piercing still on display.
When Spears first donned her belly shirts, it was the late ’90s. Three decades before, the look was considered a uniform of the Hollywood bombshell. Raquel Welch infamously wore one as part of her “fur bikini” when she played a prehistoric fisherwoman in One Million Years B.C.
Jane Birkin had many of her own, which were cut so strategically close to her cleavage that it would make any stylist feel anxious. The lace one she paired with white jeans in 1969 Cannes remains trendy to this day.
Not coincidentally, the dawn of the crop top coincided with the sexual revolution. And when the fitness craze swept America in the 1980s, gym rats got an excuse to flaunt their abs in cut-off shirts.
Crop tops are still considered sporty—see Indya Moore in Tommy Hilfiger for the March issue of V. Or David and Victoria Beckham’s son Romeo wearing a cropped tank in a L’Uomo Vogue shoot from January.
But you don’t have to work out in a crop top. The unstoppable rise of pandemic loungewear also means that it’s something you can throw on. A cropped sweatsuit has become something of a quarantine wealth flex; everyone’s in sweatpants, but a rarefied few make it fashion. It’s most evident on Kylie Jenner, who wore a highlighter orange ERL version on Instagram this week. (She made use of her bare belly, hanging a little belted chain over it.)
Or notice Addison Rae, the TikTok influencer who recently hit New York for a press tour. She appeared on an episode of Jimmy Fallon in a black crop top and ripped jeans; the segment was panned for including dances choreographed by Black creators without giving them credit.
Rae also hit up the steps of the Met in a belly-bearing “I Love New York” T-shirt, hanging off of a traffic light with the kind of unfettered exuberance reserved for people who have spent less than 10 minutes in this city.
And then there are the adults in the room, like Cynthia Erivo. Her stylist Jason Bolden is responsible for putting the actress in a very grown-up take on the look. She wore her printed, slightly boxy Louis Vuitton T-shirt with oversized trousers. Take that, crop top-phobes.
No matter how it’s worn, there’s one intended effect of the crop top: to be seen. And, maybe, to feel a little breeze against your skin. After the year we’ve all had, who can blame anyone in pursuit of those two things?