I Love My Big Shirts: A Reflection on the Oversized Button Down Trend

They go with everything– like to the point I worry people in my life will get sick of seeing them. But in fact, everybody loves my Big Shirts. And many have a couple of their own. Considering what-on-earth is so chic about a slouchy button down right now feels like a bit of a rabbit hole. But my curiosity says jump in, so read on to come along. 

For starters, the nick-name “Big Shirt”- while frankly adorable- neglects so much about what it is and why it’s big. For starters, however removed from its original context, the button down is known as a piece of the suit. And the suit is the symbol of menswear (specifically white-collar workwear and formal wear). So is there some inherent nod to gender roles when suit elements trend in women’s wear? And particularly when oversized? I can think of several reasons this quality of the Big Shirt may be attractive to women today. But here are the dominant two: A) There’s something sexy about it. And B) There’s something powerful about it.

big shirt, sex shirt 

There is certainly a very “morning after” quality to the Big Shirt. And not in a realistic way, but in a very that-girl, je-ne-sais-qua, written-by-a-man, singing-into-her-spatula kind of way. It’s right out of the movies. Out of so many movies, actually, throughout Hollywood history. It’s a trope called, “the sexy shirt switch”. Is there any better picture of this scene than Angelina Joli in Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Okay, maybe Jane Fonda in Barefoot in The Park. Many favourite female characters are costumed in this classic garment. It was a way for directors to say she just had sex… without saying she just had sex. 

Of course even in this moment in Hollywood the shirt wasn’t just about sex, but about power. There was a sort of association to sexual freedom during the time it was popularized and in that, a sartorial language of gender equality. It doesn’t come off that way as much today. In fact it’s packed with notions of heteronormativity and sizist stereotypes akin to the male gaze. But beyond the Film and Television world, we can find artistic use of suited women to address gender injustices.

big shirt power

Probably the most iconic example of this is Lady Gaga in Marc Jacobs at 2018’s ELLE Women in Hollywood event. Not a “Big Shirt”, but a “Big Suit” with a slouchiness that the Big Shirt may only dream of. The ensemble was gorgeous. Heaps of fabric fell in a way that seemed to fit as well as if it were perfectly tailored. But clothes are what we bring to them, and that evening Gaga brought her truth as a survivor of sexual assault. It was a statement in addressing what it really was to be a “woman in Hollywood” and in taking her power back. “Today,” she famously claimed, “I wear the pants.”

This cliche of “wearing the pants” as a metaphor for holding power has been stitched into the integration of suiting in women’s wear ever since its genesis. Yves Saint Laurent is noted as the first to bring the pant suit to women in 1966 when he created the iconic Le Smoking. Women in and around the wave of feminism that took off in the 70s adopted these traditionally “masculine” silhouettes into their wardrobes as a way of writing themselves into male dominated narratives.

big shirt history

While this is far from ground-breaking today (and honestly, a dated approach to feminism), it was revolutionary in its time. The dress shirt and suit come from a long line of style that emerged from what’s known as the “Great Masculine Renunciation”.  During the 19th century in Europe the suit came to rise as the uniform of powerful men. They were positioned opposite to opulent fashion and intended to paint men as sober, humble, and civilized. And thus, fashion was- very intentionally- marked feminine. 

As the suit took hold of menswear, the dress shirt transitioned from undergarment to statement. In Victorian England, collars and cuffs drew particular attention. Iconic English Dandy, George Brummel, famously starched the perfectly white collars of his linen shirts to display rank and “masculinity”. But of course, Dandyism’s emphasis on status and interest in ‘style’ would later be shunned for mirroring practices in women’s fashion. Only going to show, in my book, that everything is style. And nothing more so than such attempts to escape it. Dandy style was a beautiful and memorable moment in the history of dress and gender. Anti-fashion is fashion at its core, and to attempt to dethrone style as ‘frivolous’ is a feat as sexist as it is fruitless. 

This fall of creativity in men’s fashion was typical though. Efforts to innovate menswear were constantly rejected at the critique of being too “effeminate”. The history reads quite comical. But it’s worth noting the efforts to uphold gender binaries through dress. When women wanted to adopt the dress shirt for comfort, health, and mobility (big ask, huh?) they were carefully differentiated. Women’s shirts buttoned on the other side, lacked pockets (a rabbit hole of its own), and were tailored to draw attention to the female form. And that’s what’s different now, isn’t it? The slouchy button down has found a way of being gendered only by its wearer. They’re like blank canvases… only with storied paintings hiding for layers beneath.

the big shirt today

When garments like button downs, trousers, and blazers find their way into the trend cycle as they have today, there is something kind of gleeful to me. Because even these garments designed to live above the “frivolous” dimension of fashion ultimately will fall victim to its all-powerful hold on humanity. Everything is costume. And after such a reflection, when I wear a Big Shirt as the final touch on an outfit that is unquestionably me, I feel like I’m giggling in the face of something that so badly wants to be taken seriously. A deep history of gendered dress and “sombre” status-wear is not a structure I care to hold on any kind of pedestal. 

And perhaps there is enough of a statement in the joy they offer me. Afterall, that is exactly what clothes should do when we bring them into our world