what is fashion

What Even Is a Going-Out Top Anymore?

Paris Hilton. Photo: Steve.Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images

Fashion happens faster than ever these days. Each week, we attempt to make sense of it in a column called, “What Is Fashion?”

If you’d asked me last Friday, I would have told you that “going-out tops” and the social norms surrounding them were a thing of the past. A thing of the 2000s, specifically, when our definition of “hot” was much narrower — literally and figuratively speaking. A going-out top is the shirt you wear when you want to feel sexy at a bar or club. In a world of ugly pants and high-neck prairie dresses, it feels like an anachronism.

But this weekend, I found myself taking part in the ancient feminine grooming ritual of choosing a going-out top, and it made me reconsider all my biases. I walked into a friend-of-a-friend’s apartment on Saturday night around 9:00 p.m. happy to find at least four different scented candles flickering and a certain pop artist singing about her reputation. Alcohol flowed and curling irons sizzled. The host, whose birthday we were celebrating, was not yet dressed. Well, she wore yoga pants and a T-shirt (a look Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino would have called “the shirt before the shirt” on the Jersey Shore) but she was not “dressed,” as in dressed to go out. And so we, the G.O.T. (going-out top) tribunal, were convened to help her decide what to wear.

Personally, I was not wearing a going-out top. I was wearing a Uniqlo Heattech turtleneck and a flannel poncho, so I wasn’t sure how helpful I could be. And while G.O.T’s come in many shapes and sizes, I realized that I’d been sheltering myself by hanging out only with non-going-out-top wearers — which may be in part the result of me and my friends not feeling like our best selves in traditional going-out tops, and therefore defiantly running in the opposite direction. When I originally found out about this party, for example, I said I couldn’t go because I was wearing the wrong thing.

This was my own insecurities talking, though, and I was glad I went because the experience opened my eyes. The crowd I was with was made up of smart, supportive, stylish women, and the ritual was a variation on one I practice in my own home with my circle of friends. I have the same getting-ready playlist (it’s good!) and I wish I had nice candles. It would be easy to make stereotypical, surface-level assumptions about how we’re different, but that would miss the point: We all just want to go out looking good and feeling great.

Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid. Photo: Zelig Shaul/ACE Pictures/REX/Shutterstock

A good going-out top is hard to find, which is why I admire those who seem to own a constant rotation. In theory, a G.O.T. should make you feel sexy and cool; casual, but not too casual; and maybe even a little expensive. It has to be something you can wear in the steamy heat of a bar or a club, but warm enough to get you there and back without dying. And it also has to be you, whatever that means, because presumably, the goal of a G.O.T. is to make you feel good, and get others to notice you. To go out is to be seen.

Going-out tops also have a lot to do with the people you’re going out with, and where. I would argue that those going out to a bar on the Lower East Side are dressed differently than those frequenting one on the Lower West Side. The same goes for any neighborhood in the five boroughs with personality, which is all of them. And I don’t pass judgement on any aesthetic. I recognize that my choice of a Uniqlo turtleneck is just as specific as a Reformation top.

But if the going-out top hasn’t actually disappeared from the landscape, I do think it’s changed in the last two decades. When I compare G.O.T. icons like Paris Hilton with someone like Bella Hadid or Kendall Jenner, I see a lot of similarities. In fact, Jenner copied Hilton’s look for her own 21st birthday. But as for the rest of us, I would argue going-out tops have become more casual, along with everything else in fashion. Suits and stilettos are no longer office staples, and I think the same goes for night-fits.

On the other hand, because everything in life is so casual, going out feels like more of a special occasion: Finally, a chance to dress up! Sites like Fashion Nova have managed to thread the needle by offering clothes that feel sexy but don’t look out of place with sneakers. (Nobody wants to have to give up wearing sneakers.) They’ve also made the going-out top more attainable, and in an endless supply. This has perhaps contributed to the G.O.T.’s new life — one where it’s not so exceptional.

If anything, I think this is perhaps the biggest difference between going-out tops of then and now: there is no one way to go out. After the perfect top was finally selected for the birthday girl on Saturday night, (she looked great) we made our way to the bar. There, I met a woman whose version of a G.O.T. was an extra-large In-N-Out T-shirt, and another wearing a shirt so cropped, you could barely call it a top. Myself, I felt pretty good about my poncho.

At the end of the day, every top is a going-out top. You just have to leave the house.

This post has been updated throughout.

What Even Is a Going-Out Top Anymore?