One of the questions that new Styleforum members regularly ask is: “Why doesn’t my shirt fit right?” Often, the answer is that it’s too tight, and too-tight shirts don’t fit properly any more than too-loose shirts do. Since the birth of this trend in the early 2000’s to its peak around 2010, the shrunken shirt has done its part to make “well-fitting” synonymous with “tight” in common parlance. However, the history of slim clothing is a bit more complex.
It should come as no surprise that clothes haven’t always been skin-tight (and they’re getting looser again by the season). Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, loose-fitting clothing dominated both international runways and domestic offerings. Tailored clothing, especially in the US, was no different – shirts were blouse-y, jackets were roomy. Only British and Asian tailoring (Neapolitan styles not yet having hit the mainstream), both taking direction from Savile Row’s predilection for tall, lean tailoring, offered close-cut clothing, primarily due to the prevalence or at least presence of tailoring in contemporary life abroad. A fitted shirt was often a demarcation of higher-end RTW, MTM, or bespoke shirting, and like so many trends, cutting shirts closer to the body was an American attempt to provide that same Savile Row-inspired cut. For many brands, the idea was that a slimmer shirt would look more expensive.
At the same time, the excess of 80’s and 90’s bagginess led to a move in the opposite direction. Styles such as Tom Ford’s overwhelmingly sexy Gucci shows from the early 00’s, which featured full chests, built-up shoulders and pinched waists, replaced the loose-fitting, wide-shaped suits (such as those from Armani) that had dominated the last decade. In turn, Gucci’s athletically-built models with pinched waists and Prada’s ongoing geek-chic experiments – themselves not sexy, but moving towards ever-tighter silhouettes between 1998 and 2005, and featuring comfortably slim, stretchy dress shirts long before many others – paved the way for Thom Browne’s short, corseted suiting. This offered an intentionally less sexualized, but ultimately tighter take on menswear; Browne declared that his suit was essentially a shrunken school uniform, and the shirts were shrunken as well.
They certainly weren’t the only designers offering slim-fit clothing, but their popularity with the general public helped to put them in the American spotlight. Both men offered traditional shapes done in slightly more exciting ways; and Tom Ford’s sexuality appealed to the everyman in part because it seemed so liberated (Ford declared himself an “equal-opportunity objectifier” after a multitude of complaints about his overtly suggestive advertisements).
But ultimately, it was Browne’s prep-inspired look that really hit the mainstream, alongside a resurgence in interest with Ivy style. In 2006, Brooks Brothers announced that they would partner with Browne to create their “Black Fleece” collection (premiering 2007), which saw the American retailer’s jackets and oxford shirts grow tighter and shorter – a marked departure from the brand’s traditionally relaxed East-Coast silhouette. The effect snowballed: slim shirts were marketed to “fitter” men everywhere; styles labeled as “athletic cut” (this remains a confusing term, as often an “athletic” cut implies a shirt built for much larger body-types), “trim fit,” or even “shrunken-“ and “extra-slim fit” became commonplace. J.Crew was making a killing, and Band of Outsiders was suddenly a must-have for fashion-aware men.
Band of Outsiders, f/w 2008
Influences in fashion are hardly linear, so it’s likely that at least three trends came together to make tight desirable: Savile Row inspiration, Gucci-style sexiness, and the narrow suits of military and geek-chic designers such as Prada. Thom Browne probably emerged more from the Prada than the Gucci vein (and has obvious Ivy influence), and it’s likely that he has had more influence on the Pitti Uomo look than the others – which in turn has had a massive effect on menswear worldwide.
The explosion of Pitti Uomo as the de-facto menswear mecca for both industry buyers and visual consumers – this latter in the sense of the orgasmically voyeuristic street-style phenomenon it remains – helped the slim-fit shirt (and slim-fit everything) gain increased notoriety and popularity. Browne’s influence on the Pitti set is shown in the shrunken fits and Ivy-inspired details that have dominated the show’s image in recent memory, albeit made murkier by the vagaries of sprezzatura and its endless interpretations. Highwater chinos, darted Brooks Bros. shirts, and tassel loafers are certainly not uncommon.
Although it is difficult to point to all of Pitti Uomo’s over-the-top tendencies as being directly influential – make no mistake; the loudest outfits seen at Pitti almost never translate directly into real life, and are instead akin to costumes at a party – it has become common to see kneecaps bulging from skin-tight chinos outside the Fortezza da Basso, shirts and jackets bursting at the seams, photographers happily snapping away. These silhouettes have made their way into both international and domestic designers, and young brands such as SuitSupply (founded 2000) continue to showcase the distilled, on-trend leanings (read: slim and short), and in this particular case have taken the sexuality prevalent in Ford’s ad campaigns and cranked the objectification up to 11.
The popularity of Nick Wooster as the poster-boy for both Pitti Uomo and shrunken Ivy (Wooster worked for Thom Browne for a handful of years) is worth mentioning, particularly as a strange cultural artifact that proved, if nothing else, that “cool” is the most transient of commodities. He became a byword for the “Pitti look;” trend personified and placed in an incredibly photographic package. The Wooster phenomenon was visible all over the internet – Joshua Kissi of Street Etiquette was, for several years around 2009, an active member of Styleforum – and was also an incredibly successful example of ground-level advertising with direct correlation to trend trajectory. The constant appearance of shrunken Ivy in well-regarded streetstyle blogs such as The Sartorialist helped bring the look to the mainstream.
Meanwhile, on Styleforum, Pitti has long since become synonymous with too-tight, too-short clothing, despite the proclivity of Italian tailoring to tend towards the slim-cut while remaining comfortable and easy to move in. Trends are often a race to the bottom (or, more diplomatically, to a tipping point), and trend reporting reinforces trends, so every season clothes grew tighter. Until we arrive at the present day.
As with all trends gone commercial, slim-fit shirting reached its peak when it became a required offering at malls countrywide around 2010. Brands such as Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein touted body-hugging clothing, and Express continues to offer skin-tight, stretchy shirts from their “1MX” line. All of it mostly in loud neon colors, very little of it comfortable to wear. As with anything that becomes too widely available, there has been, predictably, a shift in the other direction. Tight shirts are still highly visible in any metropolis, but Black Fleece has shuttered its doors, JCrew is struggling to remain relevant, and Band of Outsiders is no more. Of course, that’s not entirely due to consumers growing sick of tight shirts, and there is room here for a discussion of public backlash against Ivy Style. However, offering slim-fit clothing no longer makes or breaks an American brand the way it may have 5-8 years ago. Brooks Brothers learned that Black Fleece customers favored the slimmer fits, and they and many other companies have folded these new once-new cuts into their standard offerings.
Since the early 00’s, slim-fit shirting has become less of a trend-driven must-have and has grown into one choice among many, available as a standard offering from most large menswear retailers where once it was nonexistent. And although you can still find young men buying neon, spandex-infused shirts, a tight shirt is no longer the sign of the “fashionable” the way that it once was, nor is it any longer a sign of the bearer’s largesse. Runways and fast fashion retailers have again moved towards the loose and comfortable, and a too-tight shirt now connotes a lack of knowledge.