In the 1984 music video for Lucky Star, Madonna gyrates and writhes against an all-white background – her expression a study in smug sexuality. The song was a hit, but it was her midriff-baring mesh tank top that made the more significant cultural impact. Of course, Madge wasn't the first celeb to offer up her abs to fashion: Both Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth titillated with their tummies, Norma Jean Baker was snapped in a crop before she was Marilyn and Barbara Eden spent five seasons contractually obligated to flaunt her flat stomach (but not her belly button, which was censored) on I Dream of Jeannie. Still, it took a bleach-blond bad girl to imbue the garment with the sense of raunchy rebellion that would define it for decades. Until now.
Like the Material Girl herself, the crop top has gone through multiple style reinventions since the early 1980s. Unlike almost all of its predecessors, though, this season's version is rather reserved: Elegance trumps epidermis. Paired with high-waisted bottoms, the new crop tops show just a hint of belly, if any, often using volume and proportion to invoke a cropped silhouette instead. The effect is sophisticated and sometimes even office-appropriate.
The look got a significant endorsement earlier this year at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Kerry Washington, the thinking man's sex-symbol star of Scandal, donned a hot-pink crop top with a full black skirt. The Prada ensemble was particularly notable since Washington was about seven months pregnant. Rather than vamp for the flashbulbs, she posed sweetly, one hand cupped protectively over her belly.
The haute crop prevailed during the spring/summer 2014 fashion cycle. Jeremy Laing's ready-to-wear collection featured several shirts and dresses that employed a cropped shape without exposing any flesh. "[The look is] a little more formal, less athletic," says Laing, who was recently named women's-wear designer of the year at the inaugural Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards. "What we're seeing – something short over something long – is more of a 1950s, 1960s look: a [cropped] twin set or little fifties sweater with a ball skirt," Laing says.
A similar silhouette ruled at the Chanel couture show, where Karl Lagerfeld paired cropped, voluminous pieces over midriff-concealing lower layers. Even designers who did flash flesh were flashing a lot less of it: Collections from Jill Stuart, Rag & Bone, Helmut Lang and Alexander Wang all included crop tops that bared a sliver of skin at most. "These recent designs go a long way toward making [the crop top] a more feasible garment," Laing says.
In this sense, the latest crop is a less divisive, less confrontational garment. In the past, pop tarts from Madonna to Rihanna have used it to throw their youth (and trainer-perfected physiques) in our faces. That's changing. "This look is a lot more inclusive than the crop tops we saw a decade ago," says Jessica de Ruiter, a Canadian stylist who has worked with Vogue, W Magazine and Women's Wear Daily. De Ruiter says the trick is to pick the right proportions: The more voluminous the top, the more streamlined the bottoms should be. "If the top is boxy, the bottom needs to be high enough in the waist to cover skin. If the top is fitted, a sliver of skin can be exposed," she says. De Ruiter's golden rule for keeping it chic: "No belly buttons, please."
Not surprisingly, the classed-up crop has won over a fashion-forward stable of celebrity converts. Zooey Deschanel stayed true to her feminine style at the Golden Globes by wearing an Oscar de la Renta gown that included a cropped T-shirt overlay. Jennifer Lawrence shared just the tiniest bit of tummy with her adoring public in an Alexander McQueen skirt and top while promoting Catching Fire in Madrid. Cate Blanchett wore a Prabal Gurung crop top over a matching strapless gown to a black-tie benefit. Anna Wintour covered up in a Chanel gown with a cropped silhouette at a recent state dinner, which is proof positive of the crop top's new A-list status if not its accessibility.
Mo Handahu is a Halifax-based fashion blogger who writes frequently about how to wear the hottest fashion trends with curves on her blog Lion Hunter. "I am loving this new look," she says. "Crop tops used to be sleazy, but what we're seeing now doesn't need to cling to the figure. It's more architectural." A dedicated vintage shopper and alterations whiz, Handahu recently picked up a vintage cream-coloured sweatshirt and plans to bring the hem up to achieve a cropped aesthetic. "I'm probably going to wear it to fashion week [in Toronto]," she says. Chances are she won't be the only one.