Screw New York Fashion Week — to glimpse New York’s hottest sartorial trend this year, you’ll have to venture underground. The “subway shirt,” also known as an “outfit dampener,” covers everything: shoulders, clavicles, boobs, stomachs and a sinking feeling that you might be the victim of a violent crime in a public space. Typically, as we inch closer to sticky summertime, the amount of clothing New Yorkers wear drops precipitously. But this year, as more and more women avoid taking the subway out of fear of possible assault, some flirty NYC singles are adding back a layer in the form of a giant t-shirt to guard against creepy stares and unwanted attention while aboard public transportation.
The subway shirt, depressingly modeled by a growing contingent of women on TikTok, is an outer layer that usually conceals a less homely outfit underneath. One user described it as “an oversized shirt we wear over cute outfits so strange men don’t bother you on the train.” It’s the t-shirt version of a potato sack and it screams “PLEASE DO NOT PERCEIVE ME.” No girl’s closet is complete without one!
The subway shirt isn’t just limited to boring Hanes tees. Some women get a little creative and throw on some shapeless workwear to shake things up. “Just know if you see me in a white button down, the real fit is underneath,” one woman wrote.
Claire Wenrick, 24, told The Guardian’s Alaina Demopoulos about a recent time she whipped out her subway shirt. She had put on a tank top and miniskirt to wear to a friend’s apartment but decided to throw an extra-large white tee over the getup before leaving her apartment. Chic!
“It’s a way to protect my safety getting from point A to point B,” she said. “I don’t want to become a target, as weird as that sounds. I wish I didn’t have to wear one and that it was safe to be able to wear what I want. It feels like I’m going back to a middle school dress code as an adult — continuing to dress so that men leave me alone.”
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As writer Demopoulos pointed out, evidence shows again and again that harassment and assault are not predicted by what a person is wearing. And no amount of bared skin justifies objectification or abuse, from anyone. Still, covering up with a tent-like piece of cloth makes some women feel safer participating in the most basic everyday activities, like leaving the house. (A woman? Alone? In public? The audacity!)
By most standards, New York remains a very safe city. But this year, the NYPD reported that arrests for overall index crimes, which include things like rape and aggravated assault, are at a 24-year high. In June last year, The New York Times reported the findings of a survey of MTA customers, which found 45% of respondents were riding the subway less than they had before the pandemic. For 61% of them, personal security was a reason. In February of this year, those numbers had decreased somewhat, with only 44% citing personal security as a reason for avoiding transit.
But the subway shirt trend shows us just how vulnerable women still feel out in public. A 19-year-old who recently moved to New York from Nebraska, Ajana Grove, told The Guardian that she “learned quickly” how being covered up means she can safely walk around and do what she wants. Without that extra layer, though, her feelings of security slip away.
“Every time I forget my subway shirt, I instantly regret it and think about turning around,” she said. “I’ve noticed it since I moved here — the male gaze is a physical feeling. Even if I’m not paying attention, if someone’s staring at me, I feel it.”