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As women in a society of horny animals masquerading as “developed” people, we are probably used to eschewing a utilitarian wardrobe to appeal to a sexual partner’s tastes. We can blame the media or the patriarchy (or both!) for the ease with which we willingly slip into things that start with “miracle,” end with “enhancing,” or demonstrate our ability to conceive and deliver a child with the maternal strength of all of Zeus’s lovers combined, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we do it. But for whom? And perhaps more importantly, why?
A woman putting on a man’s button-down shirt after sex is just one example from the canon of idiotic fashion tropes that has yet to die. Sure, the boxiness serves to accentuate women’s curves and general petiteness, and yes, it helps keep a lady covered, appealing to the standards of our puritanical society. But none of that excuses it for being illogical.
“I feel like if I asked to borrow a button-down shirt to wear, it'd be awkward and it'd get creased and they'd need to iron it again and that seems like waaaaaay too much work to expect someone to do for you,” says Natasha, 22. “Probs not worth the sexy image.”
In the real world, if she’s at his place, then she can easily grab a T-shirt or hoodie. If he’s at hers, then she has her own stuff to lounge around in. Rarely is there any real need to spend three minutes putting on a shirt. Yet it’s become a cliche. Rain Man, Julie & Julia, The Wedding Singer, Iron Man, Transformers, and a bunch of other TV shows and movies have turned the illogical into something incredibly alluring.
But what about it is so damn appealing? Does it really happen, and if so, who is it for? I took a deep dive into pop culture and Pinterest boards and talked to real live people to understand this weird phenomenon.
According to media historian and professor Moya Luckett of the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, the trope first emerged during the mid-20th century. It came as a side effect of the collision between post World War II backlash against women in the workforce and the growing conversation among women about sexuality, prompted in part by the rise of popular women’s fiction like the 1956 novel Peyton Place.
During the ’50s, the button-down after sex appealed to women who wanted to be seen as independent and attain men’s status in society. But they also appealed to men watching a James Bond movie and “seeing these infinitely disposable women passing through Bond’s life,” says Luckett. So in just one gesture, a woman could “give the impression of independence because she came [without] a nightdress or a nightgown and she doesn’t have her stuff there,” yet also indulge the man’s fantasy of “cycling women through his apartment [in a] Playboy image of what [he] hopes female sexuality could be.”
At least from this reading, it’s a win-win.
A few decades later, in the 1980s, the clothing company Van Heusen ran an ad for a shirt featuring the slogan “For a man to wear. And a woman to borrow.” The spot depicts beautiful women wearing only their significant other’s Van Heusen button-downs while going about their daily activities, like straddling chairs or reading on the floor. Even as the leggy models claim to have taken the shirts without permission, in what could be read as a display of dominance and superior intelligence, the underlying message delivered by the camera’s blatant male gaze and the women’s actions is that the shirts serve as both an alternative to lingerie and an adult version of a comfort blanket, keeping the women safe and warm while their boys are away — and, more importantly, operating under the illusion that they’re in control.
Really, their men have marked their territory. "Sexual possessiveness is a powerful thing,” says Eric, 24. “And it definitely gets triggered by someone wearing your stuff." With the women at home or out and about in their dudes’ oversized shirts, the men don’t have to worry about anyone thinking that their girlfriends are available. So their minds can rest easy as their ladies are locked away in a trusty cotton shell, surrounded by some hardcore 1980s furnishings.
Although this is a commercial for a man’s garment, it targets both the masculine and feminine sides of the same fantasy. For men, buying the shirt brings them one step closer to the reality of having a girlfriend who exudes an effortless beauty and an air of independence — someone who doesn’t leave their clothes at his place, because she also prefers an uncomplicated, easy relationship. For women, gifting the shirt with the end goal of wearing it suggests that they may want to show their “receptivity to more masculine ideals of feminine pulchritude and sexuality,” says Professor Luckett. They may also imagine their gift as a way to maneuver themselves into a position of power, “even if that power is achieved by playing into the male fantasy.”
The American President, Aaron’s Sorkin’s 1995 rom-com about government, love, and the limitless potential of a man’s infatuation with hearing himself talk, has what may be one of the most barefaced examples of an exchange of power achieved through a white button-down. While Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), a major political lobbyist working on behalf of the environment, is at first intimidated by President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) — who tries to wear her down with charm alone — she is able to render him an anxious sheep in wolf’s business attire by donning his button-down shirt.
After the two begin dating, Sydney comes to the president’s door and attempts to argue that they should no longer see each other, only to have the president mansplain to her why they should keep the romance going.
Sydney responds by going to “freshen up.” As she’s off screen, he explains that he knows she’s intimidated by him because he’s the president and informs her that they’re going to take their physical relationship slow for her benefit.
Plot twist! She reappears wearing just a button-down, transforming Andy into a stammering dope.
Andy: Are you nervous?
Andy: My nervousness exists on several levels. Number one, and this is in no particular order, I haven't done this in a pretty long time. Number two, uh, any expectations that you might have, given the fact that I'm... you know...
Sydney: The most powerful man in the world?
Andy: Exactly, thank you...
The scene ends with a kiss. Although this sartorial swap happens before they sleep together, the shirt serves a similar function as it might post-intercourse. Sydney literally takes something from “the most powerful man in the world” for her own use, signifying that she sees herself as his equal. He might have the title of president and be the physical penetrator during sex, but both of those things mean nothing. Sydney undercuts him by completing his sentences and manipulates him into calling his own bluff by stealing an item of clothing that he associates with his ability to perform what has always been — and continues to be — a man’s job.
What’s more, Sydney opts to button her shirt to the same degree as his, choosing menswear over sex kitten. In this scene, she’s neither demurring nor asking him to treat her like a man. Instead, she’s saying “respect me as me” — namely, an intelligent and sexual woman.
Somewhere (emotionally) between Van Heusen and The American President is a scene in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. After John Smith (Brad Pitt) and Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) beat the shit out of each other and then have aggressive sex, Jane — having already revealed that she and John are independently and equally as strong as the other — puts on his bigger but still flattering white button-down shirt, suggesting her acquiescence and interest in reconciliation. Their power hierarchy now metaphorically shattered, Jane can enter the literally shattered kitchen in an exaggerated display of classic femininity. She’s played the role of femme fatale throughout the film, but here she is simply femme, appealing to both John and the audience’s gaze.
The shirt also emphasizes Jane’s womanly features under fabric fit for John’s bulkier, more masculine body, acknowledging the cultural fantasy that natural beauty is attained just by rolling out of bed in the morning, and that small is sexy.
“I have always wanted to do this, but I haven’t been able to because I'm bigger than my partners!” says Sophie, 26. “It's one of the things I’ve felt locked out from. Even as a child, [when I saw this in a movie] I was like, ‘I don’t know if I could do that.’”
“I've definitely done this because I was copying what I saw in the movies,” says Sian, 22. “I'd borrow his shirt and I'd just happen to be drinking from a large mug of coffee with sexy bed-hair looking nonchalant in the kitchen the next day. In reality, [button-down] shirts are not very comfortable.”
“[Wearing a button-down shirt after sex] happened at the request of the dude I slept with,” says Alex, 32. “It always seemed like a cheesy sexy thing from movies, so I never did it... and maybe that's why he wanted me to put it on. He was very into it.”
“I have often used the ‘shirt’ as a design choice for women,” says former costume designer Cynthia Bergstrom, who’s worked on shows like Ringer, Private Practice, and, most notably, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which incorporated the post-coital button-down during the season 4 premiere. “It was used to convey that the two are now a couple, that they are connected… more than that they just had sex. She is now his… so to speak.”
Dana, 28, agrees. “That's boyfriend-level shit,” she says.
All the guys I talked to responded with enthusiasm. "Someone else wearing your clothes is sort of like signaling that they're becoming a part of your life," says Eric. Both Cameron, 23, and Larry, 45, felt similarly.
“[It’s] deeply intimate in a way,” says Cameron. “Very few people wear my clothing, so crossing that boundary is definitely sexy. Following up on that, it shows they're at ease with me in a way that I really like. Like they could have put on their own clothing but instead put on mine. [And] it's got that whole ‘casual morning after’ vibe.”
“If she's at your place, it means she knows she's in relationship zone,” says Larry. “Or it means she wants to stay if it's early on, since you're obviously not going to demand your shirt back and boot her out for a walk of shame.”
So who’s ultimately in power here?
“I think [stealing the shirt is] about stealing his independence,” says Luckett. “To me, it ties into that adolescent girl thing when you like someone so you leave something behind or you borrow something therefore there’s an excuse for another encounter. If she takes his best shirt, then… she’s engineering that next move.”
So again, big question: Who comes out on top? Is the woman wearing a man’s shirt to appeal to his gaze? Or is she manipulating the practice for her own power? And can it be both?
In the words of one Reddit user who commented on my thread, “Don't think too hard about it.”