Baby tees, or cute, girly T‑shirts of the teeny-tiny variety, have been sneaking their way onto our screens for the best part of two decades. Since its mid-90s heyday of appearing in Friends and pop culture phenoms like Clueless, our appetite for the shrunken tee hasn’t dwindled, nor has our turn of the decade obsession for reviving trends. We’re looking at you, Euphoria.
At the forefront of 2022’s new and improved baby tee movement is Vanna Youngstein, a stylist, designer and purveyor of the many tiny T‑shirts we see Maddy (Alexa Demie), Kat (Barbie Ferreira), Jules (Hunter Schafer) and Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) wearing on Euphoria each week. Pastel-hued, jet-black or covered in cherries, the slogans or phrases they’re slapped with nod to the subcultural ’90s movements they’re referencing, for a brand-new generation.
Having grown up in ’90s and ’00s London, before relocating to New York City where she’s now based, Youngstein has stayed booked and busy since the launch of her eponymous brand a few years ago, having collaborated with cult brands like X‑Girl and Agnes B.
“The mix of being half American and half English really [influenced] my style, like wearing varsity jackets over my school uniform,” Youngstein says. “There was always this mix of sportswear and slogan tees worn with blazers or kilts. I’m also very into film characters’ wardrobes, especially heavily stylised icons like Betty Boop, Jackie Brown, Jessica Rabbit and Corey Mason [from Empire Records].”
And so Youngstein’s approach to design is mainly character driven. As an avid vintage tee collector, she started making ones for herself, but they proved so popular among friends and passers-by that Youngstein decided to build a proper business out of it. Now, in addition to being a regular in Euphoria costume designer Heidi Bivens’ weekly get-ups, she also counts Kendall Jenner, Margaret Qualley and Pretty Sick frontwoman Sabrina Fuentes as some of the brand’s most recognisable wearers.
Baby tees have been a cool girl go-to since the ’90s, when they functioned as a kind of antidote to the previous decade’s oversized casualwear – a versatile piece that conveyed tomboy sensibilities as easily as it did glamour. Now, you could argue they’re a symptom of our collective craving for a type of comfort which is most easily satisfied sartorially. Perhaps people’s awareness of getting older has frozen in time due to the pandemic, leading them to dress for nostalgia.
“I think [given] the pandemic, people want something casual, but stylised and easy to wear that sort of sums up their style in one piece,” Youngstein says. “I like things to look like a throwback but simultaneously really simple and modern. It feels like people really want to wear things that make them smile right now. I’m busier than ever with my tees at the moment.”
Admittedly, Youngstein’s success in the baby tee biz isn’t isolated. The teen fashion fantasy of Heaven by Marc Jacobs has won over a legion of fans of all ages, as has US-based brand Eckhaus Latta, which makes some of fashion’s most sought after tiny tops.
Then there’s tongue in cheek label Praying, of Holy Trinity Bikini fame, that has irreverence sewn into the very seams of its baby tees – one currently available on their website features a “God’s Favorite” slogan in rhinestones. Alt-girl favourite Unif and hyped young designers like Mowalola and Ashley Williams are also among those to have joined the cult. Meanwhile, vintage finds are rife on Depop, from actual T‑shirts for babies to archive Hysteric Glamour, Baby Phat and Dior pieces.
Even high street shops have cottoned on to the item’s ubiquity, shifting it into the mainstream as a result. A quick scan of Urban Outfitters’ website will have you feeling like you’ve just uncovered a hybrid ’70s and ’90s time capsule, filled with hippie and band merch-inspired tiny raglan tops.
Holly Friend, deputy foresight editor and consultant at The Future Laboratory, suggests that the baby tee is equal parts fashion anchor and growing pains sweet spot. “The wave of early ’00s ‘netstalgia’ that’s being unleashed on our social feeds, streaming platforms and city streets right now is a natural symptom of Gen Z getting older,” she says.
“While they’re showcasing more pragmatic behaviours than their predecessors – they’ve been investing in crypto and running Depop businesses since their tweens – they’re clinging on to their youth with the same fervour as previous generations. After all, the pandemic has ripped out years of twenty-somethingness from beneath their feet, so it’s only natural they’re engaging with nostalgia through fashion and pop culture.”
Hence the plastic fantastic, summer-camp jewellery trends that took over social media last summer and the roaring success of Marc Jacobs’ Heaven offshoot. In a way, the popularity of baby tees is emblematic of rejecting the discomfort of premature adulthood.
“It’s also not a coincidence that these aesthetics are riffing off the early internet,” Friend continues. “With technology already looking ahead to a future of Web3, these emblems of early-2000s netstalgia represent a less intimidating period of digital simplicity.”
For designers like Youngstein, there’s no better time to ride the wave of baby tee mania. She’s got new pieces coming out this week, alongside a special Valentine’s Day release. And fear not, Euphoria-heads: the most recent tees featured in the show will be dropping imminently.
Finally, what makes the perfect baby tee? “Whether or not a Spice Girl would wear it,” Youngstein concludes. The tinier the tee, the better, we reckon.