Being in a long-distance relationship means you wear your boyfriend’s shirt a lot, or at least it did for me. During the year my boyfriend and I spent living in different cities, I accumulated three to five shirts of his that I wore with more frequency than anything else in my closet besides my jeans. Each time he visited, I acquired a new shirt that he “accidentally” forgot to pack. It was never an accident. Wearing the shirts was a way to wrap myself up in his presence when he couldn’t be present himself, a balm for my inability to physically reach out over the distance.
It wasn’t a particularly fashionable choice when I wore these shirts in public – the shirts he left were usually his oldest and most worn-in ones; they were softer and they smelled like him but they didn’t look great. They also didn’t fit in the way “boyfriend” clothes are supposed to. Most men are actually not all that different in size from most women, and men’s clothing sizes aren’t actually all that different from women’s clothing sizes. I looked like I was wearing a very slightly too-big shirt that I’d pulled out of a laundry hamper.
But by wearing these shirts I was supposedly participating in a perennially current fashion trend. The “boyfriend clothing” trend, looks “borrowed from the boys” and “steal his jeans” styles have been popping up once again not because it’s fall but because at any time, in any season, some brand wants to tell everybody about boyfriends. It’s definitely not anything new.
Neither is a woman wearing clothes made for men. People like to trace women in menswear to Coco Chanel’s semi-androgynous style, but women had been wearing men’s clothes and incorporating menswear into their personal style since long before Chanel’s crisp white shirts and neat suits. Sarah Bernhardt, a nineteenth century actress whose tabloid-courting fame would be more at home in today’s Kardashian-era world, famously dressed in men’s clothes — it was a gimmick, but a gimmick that inspired hordes of imitators. By the early twentieth century, a woman in beautifully tailored men’s clothes was a recognizable form of glamour, whether Marlene Dietrich’s flawless black tie or Katherine Hepburn striding across a lawn in high-waisted pants.
The trend was, and is, inescapably about social class — whenever images of women in men’s clothes emerge into a mainstream idea of fashion, it’s a very wealthy woman; their wealth and fame protect the wearer, allowing them to publicly act out subversion from within the protective cocoon of money and social status. Men’s clothes on women, yes, but only a tuxedo tailored to a level beyond the reach of just about woman who might get ideas from photos of Dietrich. It’s for similar reasons that so many people incorrectly cite Chanel as the inventor of androgynous style; Chanel’s use of men’s fashion never impacted her traditional presentation of femininity and thus never threatened to give other women permission to do the same.
Popular images of women in menswear up through the 20th century for the most part show similarly meticulous tailoring. This isn’t “boyfriend” clothes yet — no one is trying to look like they just got out of someone else’s bed.
Perfume ads in the ‘90s and early ‘00s showing supermodels in large white dress shirts and nothing else, all the legs and trailing French cuffs, coincide with the onslaught of photos of petite female celebrities wearing men’s jeans. Both contribute to the popularization of “boyfriend” clothes. As off-duty celebrity style grows ever more popular, as we begin to be told not to aspire to look like the rich and famous at their best but — as social media and reality TV welcome us into celebrities’ day to day lives — at their most mundane, sloppiness becomes aspirational.
The boyfriend clothing item, whether jeans or a shirt (it’s pretty much always either jeans or a shirt), is about spontaneity. It’s about happenstance and carelessness and clothing that was left on the floor. It’s about the small ways in which we seek to own one another’s bodies, and about the desire for our relationships with others to leave visible marks on us, to follow us tangible out into the world beyond a private encounter. It’s about telling everybody that you had sex. Its visual reference is to a woman stumbling out of a man’s house in the morning having grabbed the dress shirt he was wearing the night before — it’s titillating because it’s just a little wrong, it’s almost appropriate but not quite.
The boyfriend shirt tells the world that you got to go into a man’s house where all his clothes are, that someone liked you enough to take off his shirt in front of you. It’s a reminder of a private space in public, but only one tied to traditional binary gender roles and heteronormative relationships. When clothes are marketed with the phrase “borrowed from the boys” they reference the packaged fantasy of being the girl in the boys club, approved by a masculine audience but still recognizably a girl, like the lone female member of a heist movie’s team.
I am a good customer for the idea of spontaneity, which is one of my worst and most embarrassing qualities. I fall for the kind of marketing that re-labels natural ability into a commodity, that claims luck is something you can buy on a hanger or package in a tube. The type of aesthetic that extols the boyfriend shirt is the one that sells carelessness as elegance, the one that thinks you should go to a party looking like you just came from the gym and that while you’re at the gym you should look beautiful.
Life impacts all of us in ways that make looking messy sometimes unavoidable – coming home from the gym or from a guy’s apartment is one way this happens, and neither of these things is necessarily glamorous. Sometimes the good thing about staying at someone’s house so late in the morning that you grab their shirt in a rush to go to work is that the experience is big enough to make you forget to care whether or not you look glamorous. But a certain, popular strain of fashion demands these spontaneous, careless experiences be staged and polished. Not a shirt actually borrowed from a man, but a shirt bought expressly to be a “boyfriend” shirt.
The aesthetic of spontaneity is a Protestant simplicity, an idea that if only you would stop reaching for spectacle, stop showing off, you’d be reborn clean, all your sharp edges sanded down. It’s a competition in which looking beautiful only counts if you can do it with your eyes closed. The boyfriend shirt is another example of the way in which fashion and beauty industries point at naturally occurring youth and beauty and call it skill, marketing models’ style tips and workout secrets and beauty routines, as though the real secret in each instance is not just a miracle of genetics and circumstance. The boyfriend shirt, much like the athleisure trend, seems to promise something less stratified by class than traditional ideas of glamour. But this kind of studied carelessness is just another version of a bespoke suit you can’t afford.
It’s also difficult to define the “boyfriend” trend item in terms of fit in any meaningful way. I’m six feet tall and relatively broad shouldered, with excessively long limbs. I have trouble finding anything labeled “boyfriend” that fits me like something other than a half-size too large women’s version of the same item of clothing. The idea that men and women are supposed to be certain sizes in relation and proportion to one another is reinforced by boyfriend clothing. Images of heterosexual relationships almost invariably show a woman so small she is swallowed up by her boyfriend’s clothes. All my life I’ve worked to shake the idea that my relationships don’t count because they have not looked like this. But what the boyfriend shirt is selling is that very idea, love defined by comparative body size.
Women wear, and always have worn, masculine clothing for myriad reasons, reasons to do with identity and reasons that have nothing to do with identity, reasons to do with gender and reasons that have nothing to do with gender, and reasons to do with the fact the men’s clothes have pockets far more often than women’s clothes do. I might buy a men’s shirt for a million reasons that have nothing to do with a man.
Sometimes I want to wear a type of clothing I can most easily find by searching women’s sections with the keyword “boyfriend” not because I want to show that I have a boyfriend, but because I want to hide my body, to be relieved for a while from presenting its shape and dimensions to the world. Shapeless or oversized clothing can serve as an escape and a safe place. Beyond that, sometime it’s just more comfortable. Plenty of women wear clothing made for men as part of their personal style, for reasons that have nothing to do with boyfriends or with gender. But calling these clothes “boyfriend shirt” and “boyfriend jeans” makes it not about personal style but about a promise that this shirt will show everybody that you can get a man.
Now that we live together, I still borrow my boyfriend’s shirts. Most often it’s his tuxedo dress shirts, as they’re the only ones that are really big on me. I also borrow his sweatshirts and t-shirts and in the winter we buy big sweaters for both of us to wear. We borrow a lot of things from each other; that’s part of the slow process of intimacy, a line-blurring sloppiness that folds two lives together. Sometimes these clothes look good on me, and sometimes they don’t. I wear almost exclusively his clothes on days when I don’t have to go outside but I have to get a lot of work done. It’s nice to imagine that utility can be elevated into an aesthetic and that carelessness is always fashionable, but sometimes it’s just careless. The intimacy of putting someone else’s clothes next to your skin is the type of thing brands want to sell you, and exactly the kind of thing you can’t manufacture or buy.
The term “boyfriend” takes all the danger and meaning out of the idea of gender-swapped clothes. It further enforces the idea that items of clothing have to have genders, like French nouns that can be lined up according to male and female.
I’ve never been able to ignore that putting the word boyfriend as a modifier in front of the name of a piece of clothing makes it sound like the clothing item is supposed to actually be your boyfriend, standing in for a man. I like oversized clothes, but maybe I just want to buy a big shirt, not a boyfriend.