You know the shirt. Soft, short sleeved, vertically striped. Usually fastened extra low. The kind of “retro” style which can leave men looking like extras from a university production of West Side Story. What’s that coming over the hill, is it a flashmob? Nope, it’s just a band of Clapham Gays in their go-to summer look: the striped bowling shirt. Extra points if it’s worn with rolled-up skinny jeans and Stan Smiths.
With its open collar, cotton candy stripes and silky fabrication, this shirt is so ubiquitous within the UK’s gay male community that it has become a cornerstone of contemporary queer dress. It’s hard to know where it all began: people started noticing it during the summer of 2018. And ever since – via a deluge of @poundlandbandit-style starter packs and endless Twitter memes – the shirt has become emblematic of gay men plus sunshine.
The shirt's recent popularity isn’t just conjecture – Zara, Topman and H&M are all selling various iterations. Meanwhile, as the press team at fashion search platform Lyst tells VICE, searches for “men's striped shirts” continue to increase 52 percent month-on-month and online views have more than tripled for shirts labelled “retro” and “short-sleeved”.
This style first appeared in the 1930s – an important point, according to Jay McCauley Bowstead, a lecturer at the London College of Fashion and author of Menswear Revolution. After all, the decade marked a turning point in mens fashion whereby new items like this (appropriately named) “camp collar shirt” symbolised a rejection of rigid Victorian dress codes and in doing so, came to embody “an early contestation of gender norms”. The gay striped shirt as we know it, though, seems to take closer cues from its later iteration as a 1950s bowling shirt – a defining look of a period so easily romanticised through a stereotypically gay lens – by way of kitsch aesthetics, a rapidly mobilised pop culture and well, Grease.
The shirt’s current incarnation proves just as significant. “Half of my wardrobe consists of these shirts,” says Chris Gunner, a customer success and sales manager. “This would be my out-out shirt. I feel more confident wearing them.”
Similarly, Adam James, who also works in sales, owns a serious “10 to 15” shirts in the style. Adam agrees with Chris: “I feel comfortable in them… I have a bit of a belly and vertical stripes have a slimming effect.”
The shirt’s Americana essence “is processed through a European sensibility, which tends to be more colourful and body conscious,” explains McCauley Bowstead. For Chris, it was this very “combination of different colours and flattering fit” that first drew him to the bowling shirt. And given that the aforementioned retailers are primarily based in urban centres with a naturally higher concentration of gay men, it makes sense as to why the shirt may have caught the queer eye.
But this shirt also fits into a tradition of gay men teasing the boundaries of menswear “by adopting bright colours and slinky fabrications” says McCauley Bowstead. It’s just that this particular style represents a much safer way of doing so. It’s “the most advanced yet acceptable style” – one which is recognisably menswear but has a softness which may attract gay consumers as a look that runs alongside a more butch aesthetic.
Of course, queer people have long used clothing to communicate their sexual identity to others “in the know”. But like literally everything else, even the most subtle of flagging gets turbocharged by social media – algorithms provide an endless feedback loop, connecting striped shirt to striped shirt “and then it seems as though every gay on the planet owns one,” says Chris.
“It has put me off,” says Anthony Gilét, a blogger and comedian. “They’ve become basic.” Anthony does own a striped shirt, but is eager to stress that it’s only because a friend gave him theirs because he had nothing else to wear on holiday.
As popular as these shirts may be, the “basic” associations are perhaps a little unfair – especially because it’s a relatively cheap look to buy into and so lacks the standard cachet of exclusivity. But for many (namely Golden Virginia gays that live in places like Hackney or New Cross), it’s a calling card for the kind of people who unironically choose the cursive font on their Instagram stories and caption pre-drinks selfies with Mean Girls quotes. To them, the shirt is the fashion equivalent of decorating your house with a driftwood Live, Laugh, Love.
Even the straights have latched onto it (only about two years after gay men first started wearing them, mind). Earlier this year, something called “festival bros” were spotted wearing the same yellow and black version of the shirt. James, too, can testify to this: “I have a close friendship group with straight men who will now wear these shirts.”
For a lot of people who wear the shirts though, it’s meme-like ubiquitousness isn’t really an issue. It’s been around since the 1930s, so it’s hardly going to go away. The striped shirt “makes me feel like a typical southwest London gay and I’m at peace with that,” says data analyst Tom Hunt.
As for it being basic: “It’s 2020, and despite the rhetoric about not putting labels on ourselves, we seem to be okay with doing that when it comes to people's outfit choices,” says Chris. "Ultimately, I feel good when I wear one of these shirts, and for me that’s the bottom line.”