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The return of the going-out top

To the mild shock of millennial grownups, a nightlife staple of their 2000s wardrobe has made its comeback — this time as a fresh-start statement in the 2020s.

From left, Laura Kruger, Danielle Black, Ashley Miln and Christina Risley are ready to party in their going-out tops, circa 2004. (Danielle Black)

It’s 2007. You’re 21. You, Megan, Erin and Emily are all headed out to the bar. You barrel-curl your hair, cake on the eye shadow and liner, put on your low-rise, boot-cut True Religion jeans and heels, and your going-out top. Maybe the spaghetti-strap camisole with the lace neckline? Or the cowl-neck shiny polyester. The teeny-tiny cropped vest. The sequin tube top. The embellished corset. The babydoll. The bubble hem. The ruching in all the right (wrong) places. You look amazing.

It’s 2023. You’re 21. You, Taylor, Olivia and Emma are all headed out to the bar. You arrange your curtain bangs and fill out your brows, put on your high-waisted, straight-leg jeans and heels, and your going-out top. The spaghetti-strap camisole with the lace neckline. The cowl-neck shiny polyester. The teeny-tiny cropped vest. The sequin tube top. The embellished corset. The babydoll. The bodysuit. The ruching, this time around, is in the right places. You look amazing.

Girlies, the top is back. The top you bought for the sorority mixer. The top you wore when you hooked up with Josh. The top you swapped with Jessica, who always took photos of everyone on her digital camera and uploaded them to Facebook with song lyrics as captions and pre-emoji hearts: <3 It looks like “Laguna Beach” and Lindsay Lohan and Pink Is the New Blog. It tastes like vodka soda and smells like Clinique Happy and sounds like “Yeah!” by Usher, Lil Jon and Ludacris.

“Every time I’m at the mall, in the past six months, I feel like I have been whiplashed back through time,” says Jenna Barclay, 35, of Los Angeles. “It’s a very jarring experience, because every store looks identical to what I remember it looking like 15 years ago.”

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Whiplashing people through time is Barclay’s job, in a way. She’s a content creator who makes nostalgic videos about millennials — TikToks about the now-embarrassing things that then-teens, present 30-somethings, did and wore in the early 2000s. The going-out top is a supporting character.

Thanks to Gen Z’s fascination with all things Y2K, it has been revived and reimagined for a generation newly ready to go out after spending some of their prime years staying in. The top is a tabula rasa of post-pandemic young adulthood, ready to absorb and reflect the 2023 equivalent of those aforementioned references: It looks like TikTok, tastes like espresso martinis and sounds like Dua Lipa.

The top was cheap, and that was the point. It was from Wet Seal, or Arden B, or Express if you were a little spendy.

“If I wanted to be fancy, I would go to Bebe. I feel like they had the best going-out tops,” Barclay says. At Forever 21, another favorite, “you could buy a new one for every night, because they were like $8.”

The rise of the going-out top and fast fashion go hand in hand. But its origins date back to the 1940s and ’50s, when ready-to-wear separates entered the market. Instead of being yoked to outfit sets, “you had the ability to mix and match a skirt with a more formal top,” says fashion historian Sara Idacavage, an instructor at the University of Georgia.

Then came the youthquake of the ’60s, along with the proliferation of synthetic fabrics, and subsequent decades brought designer denim into the market, thanks to Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein. The trend cycle sped up in the early 2000s, and the production cycle accelerated to match. It coincided with a period of fashion that celebrated glitter, sheen, sex and excess, which resulted in a $15 beaded camisole in so many 18-year-olds’ closets, circa 2003.

“To me, the Going Out Top is something we would wear with jeans, where the formality level of the top doesn’t necessarily match with the denim vibe,” says Heather Cocks, half of the duo behind Go Fug Yourself, the site that has been chronicling celebrity outfits since the top’s heyday. But the style fell out of fashion gradually in the 2010s, as dresses, jumpsuits and matched sets became more standard going-out attire. “I think more attention has been paid to the whole outfit rather than just the top,” wrote Cocks in an email.

These days, the going-out tops come from ASOS and Princess Polly and Shein. Gen Zers who are into thrifting also go on Depop to buy the genuine thing — “vintage” going-out tops from 2005. (Yes, that’s considered vintage now.)

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“I’m seeing a lot of Vive Maria, Rampage, INC, Diesel, and designer tops like D&G corsets and Dior baby tees,” says Depop seller Krystina Jackson, 28, of Windsor, Conn., in an email. She sources them from thrift stores in her area. Popular design elements include “metal chain links, zipper embellished, denim corsets, and mesh long sleeves.” However, she notes that not every going-out top is a guaranteed seller: “Super sassy tops made by brands like Dereon by Beyoncé and Baby Phat never seem to fly off the racks.”

“Sometimes I do get comments saying, ‘My mom used to dress like that,’” says Erin Miller, 33, who also creates millennial nostalgia content on TikTok. “And I’m like, ‘Wait, how old am I?’”

It was about time. Academic research in fashion dictates that “trends do come back like every 20 years,” Idacavage says, “when there’s been enough distance that you no longer have these really close memories and associations. So it’s like, familiar, but it’s not so familiar that it still causes you embarrassment.”

There is even a term for this. Of course, it’s one of those German words that captures a vague but vast concept, as detailed by the German philosopher Georg Simmel, who wrote one of the earliest analyses of fashion. The phrase is “charm of difference” — he uses the word “reiz” — which is what makes old styles look fresh again. In Heike Jenss’s “Fashioning Memory,” Simmel’s idea of reiz “refers also to a physiological stimulus or sensation, implying a deeper-going sensual or emotional affect caused by the contrast of the past fashion revived in the present.”

On a recent Thursday, Danielle Black, 41, was putting on the reiz as she took a trip down memory lane in her Columbus, Ohio, closet.

“Oh my God. I found an Express going-out top. It’s really sexy,” she says, pulling out a black strapless lace corset. Would she wear it again, now that it’s back in style? “Maybe under a blazer, for New Year’s Eve.” Next, she pulled out a cobalt blue one-shouldered tunic top with black color-blocking — overlong, worn with boot-cut jeans and chunky necklaces. Current styles are more cropped, so this one would be harder to pull off in 2023 — but “it’ll come back,” Black says.

Black shared pictures of her and three friends at the zenith of the going-out top era. There are sequins and lace, and a “Charlie’s Angels” finger-gun pose, which led to this reporter being added to a vibrant group chat reminiscing about Coach wristlets, Uggs, cosmopolitans, college pre-gaming and the collective acceptance that they’re all old now and no longer go out. (This reporter, for what it’s worth, still has a few of her going-out tops and Coach wristlets deep in her closet somewhere, and is also old and no longer goes out.)

Millennials may feel ambivalent about the return of other trends from their youth, such as low-rise jeans or velour tracksuits. But the going-out top is a font of good memories and flattering necklines. It solves an essential dilemma — what should I wear to go out? — and can be dressed up or down, or covered with a jacket for more modesty.

“To see these styles again, it’s just like going back to an old hobby or an old interest,” Barclay says, “except now I have adult money and I can buy whatever I want.”

Besides, “it’s also much easier to pee in a bar when you’re wearing separates than when you’re wearing a jumpsuit, so they are also honestly practical for an evening out,” notes Jessica Morgan, the other half of Go Fug Yourself.

So what is 2023’s version of the going-out top? Corsets and bustiers are definitely back. Everything is cropped. Gen Z might wear a swimsuit or sports bra as a top, and those handkerchief tieback shirts (think Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” era) are on the upswing, too, along with feather trim.

InStyle called it “Feral Girl Fall”: a time when partywear became daywear, and daring design elements — cutouts, mesh, teeny tops clinging for dear life to the décolletage with dental floss-thin straps — came back online. And the new going-out tops aren’t just for women. Timothée Chalamet wore a drapey silk number to the Venice Film Festival (“Thanks for having fun with it, Timmy,” wrote Go Fug Yourself), and Harry Styles has donned a sequined tank top on several occasions.

“Gen Z isn’t subscribing to gender binaries, and people are taking inspiration from all genders, ages, decades, color [palettes] and patterns,” says Jackson, the Depop seller. “Now, people are asking themselves, ‘What vibe or aesthetic do I want to portray tonight?’ Gen Z isn’t boxing themselves into one style category.”

Gen Z is really into thrifting and resale — in part because they were raised to think about the effects that fast fashion has on the environment — so their going-out tops might be the original thing, purchased secondhand. But the generation’s focus on sustainability doesn’t preclude them from shopping supercheap fast-fashion retailer Shein, where going-out tops can be found for as low as around $5.

“I tend to look for things that have interesting necklines, interesting material or more color and patterns than I would wear in my everyday wardrobe,” says Anastasia Matlin, a 23-year-old investment analyst in D.C. She wears them with black leather pants or high-waisted, wide-legged (never skinny) jeans, layered gold necklaces and heeled boots. Like with millennials, nostalgia has attracted her to the style.

“I witnessed the end of that trend era when I was very young” — too young to wear going-out tops, because she was in elementary school — “and so it brings back the fond memories,” Matlin says. “It was before everything was as easily shareable on social media as it is now. So it just feels like a refresh, or a fun time to go back to and take inspiration from.”

One major difference between the going-out tops of yesteryear and today is smartphones.

“We would only dress up to go out. That’s where we were being seen. Like, that’s where we were taking the photos with our digital cameras and we were posting [to] Facebook,” says Miller, the content creator. “I feel like people dress up all the time now, because, with social media, they can post their outfit on Instagram, and everything’s just so immediate.

So why does a cheap, sometimes-tawdry, sort-of-cringey top from the faded past inspire such strong emotions in generations spanning 20 years? It’s because a going-out top is a rite of passage. The going-out top is grown up, and it’s forever young.

“The idea of the going-out top is sort of inherently linked to ephemerality and experimentation,” Idacavage says. “It plays this really crucial part [in] growing up and developing one’s style, because you’re also wearing it at a time where you’re meeting your friends for life and potential spouse and you’re away from your parents. So maybe you can dress a little bit more risqué.”

And if that results in some cringey misfires — well, that’s all part of it, as Go Fug Yourself chronicled the first time around. Cocks and Morgan are eager to see how it plays out in this cycle.

“It’s like, ‘Did you learn nothing from the sacred texts of your elders?!?’” Cocks says. “Every young generation thinks they’re the first to don something the RIGHT way, and it’s a rite of passage to look back in your forties and think, ‘Oh yeah, that wasn’t as cute as I thought it was.’ Let ’em live and learn, I say! Live and let top.”

Miller thinks Gen Z is doing the top better than her generation did, recalling the days when Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie would wear easily imitated looks for red carpet events. “We were all just wearing the same thing. And now I just feel like there’s a lot more variety,” she says. She’d even be willing to give it another spin as a 30-something, if she had the occasion.

“We’ll see if I find myself going out.”

correction

An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect age for Jenna Barclay. She is 35, not 37. The story has been corrected.

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