Top image: Kit Suman / Unsplash
When I step outside, I almost always have two outfits: (1) The family-friendly version I wear on my commute and (2) The actual fit, hidden below the cover-up of the day.
I call it a ‘slut cover’. Similar to pump covers at the gym, the slut cover shrouds my body from prying eyes until I choose to remove it. Some days it’s a cardigan. On other days, it’s an oversized flannel. If the weather allows, it’s a jacket.
It’s not something I pay too much attention to. Just like making sure to bring extra sanitary products when I’m out (in case a fellow woman is in a pinch), it feels like one of those unspoken rules of being a woman.
You can’t stop people from staring (though they really shouldn’t). But you can cover up and give them less to look at.
It wasn’t until my TikTok feed started serving me videos of women in their cover-ups—usually baggy T-shirts known as subway shirts—that I realised it was a thing.
From New York to London to Paris—cities where commuting via train is common—women are doing the same thing, propelled by the desire to avoid creepy and judgemental gazes.
Judging from the stories of fellow Singaporean women, It’s fair to say that the experience is universal.
Eyes Up Here
The subway shirt trend took off in the West back in May, when the weather started heating up, and women broke out their crop tops and shorts.
In Singapore, though, it’s a year-round affair for some.
In an informal Telegram poll by RICE, 43 percent of 336 respondents said they feel the need to dress more conservatively on public transport.
“There’ve been instances where people have stared at me while I was wearing a sleeveless top or a shorter skirt or dress,” Cherry, a 26-year-old copywriter, tells me.
“While I don’t feel any shame for dressing the way I do, these stares are still unwelcome.”
And while some women don’t bring along an extra shirt or jacket, they take other precautions to protect themselves.
Melissa, 33, who works in marketing, shares that she has a “large chest for a Chinese woman”. She tends to avoid tank tops—but when she does wear them, she resorts to covering her décolletage with her bag while sitting on the MRT.
She doesn’t want people staring down her top, she explains.
“Knowing that someone could be looking at you with malicious intent or, worse, taking a photo, is an unpleasant feeling.”
Jessie*, 30, who takes extra care to button up her shirts a little higher, agrees.
“It’s not only the uninvited and unwanted stares, but also the fear of people just posting things online these days for reasons that aren’t wrong but just what they may not agree with.”
Their fears aren’t unfounded.
Simply minding your own business, going about your day, and taking the MRT can attract pervs. There are Telegram channels out there dedicated to sharing pictures of unsuspecting women and schoolgirls (!) on the train.
Lynn*, a 25-year-old data analyst, recounts a recent incident where a man shifted his phone to his groin level after she entered the train and appeared to be taking photos of her crotch. She was wearing leggings as she’d worked out earlier, she says.
“As I have had a similar experience of reporting someone who took upskirt photos of me, I knew the three-hour wait at the police station, one hour of interrogation by the police officers and train station staff, followed by one year of chasing my Investigation Officer for updates, simply wasn’t worth it. So this time, I just walked away.”
Cherry, too, had an unpleasant experience while wearing form-fitting activewear on her commute.
Her outfit exposed her tattoos, which attracted an elderly man’s attention. The man called out at her and asked her if she was “afraid of having so many tattoos”, she says.
She didn’t react and simply walked past him. But he caught up with her and told her he could help her lose weight.
“I felt quite disgusted because all this meant he was actually staring and studying my body and felt the need to tell me how I could achieve a more desirable body. In some ways, I felt violated—even if I wasn’t physically harassed or assaulted.”
Cherry says she still chooses to wear whatever she wants, whenever she wants. But on some days, when she isn’t as confident or feels “a little off”, she wears a cardigan or does up an extra button.
“On those days, I’ll let loose only when I get to my destination or am surrounded by my friends.”
Most of us have to use public transport. It’s frustrating that in this day and age, so many of us still feel compelled to change the way we dress just to feel a little safer during our commute.
Even when we aren’t physically harassed or approached in public, the surreptitious photos, lecherous looks, or judgemental glares are more than enough to make any woman uncomfortable.
The kicker is that covering up isn’t the panacea to avoiding harassment.
I remember one incident in my secondary school years where a boy who looked to be a couple of years older than me was standing uncomfortably close. Even as I tried to back away, he edged closer till he was practically breathing down my neck.
I was wearing my school uniform.
Shifting Fashion Norms
Showing some skin seems to be in vogue, at least in recent years. Magazines such as Glamour and L’Officiel declared last year that backless dresses were officially in style, along with barely-there crop tops and low-rise jeans.
In a post-Covid era, the lines between activewear and “going-out clothing” are also blurring. More women are opting for pieces that will work in the gym and the office.
In Singapore, younger folks are making bolder fashion choices. Melissa and Cherry both point to @OrchardRoadFashion as evidence of this.
On the TikTok account, which posts candid shots of people strutting their stuff, bright colours, unique silhouettes, gender-bending styles, and lots of skin are par for the course.
“I do think Gen Zs are leading the movement towards expressing oneself boldly through fashion. Publications like Female and social media [accounts] like Orchard Road Fashion amplify that, and that’s a good thing,” Cherry remarks.
But not everyone is as progressive. Some men still take a woman’s clothes (or lack thereof) as an invitation to act inappropriately. The older generation still tends to eye skimpily-dressed youngins with disapproval.
Case in point: That one auntie who achieved internet notoriety in 2014 when she yelled at a woman in a backless top to “wear your clothes properly”.
For many women, including me, there’s an internal conflict each time we get dressed. Do we wear whatever the hell we want or conform to avoid stares and harassment?
A Future of Subway Shirts
For all that’s been said about how safe Singapore is, sexual harassment is surprisingly common. Nearly every woman I’ve spoken to has experienced some form of it. And even if it happened ages ago, it sticks with you.
Melissa says she’s still affected by several incidents in her teenage years. It included a middle-aged man openly staring down her top at the supermarket, an elderly man leaning close to her face to wolf-whistle and running off before she could react, and another elderly man that her mother suspected of touching himself through his pants pocket while seated next to her on the train.
“What was I wearing? A simple, fitting tee and modest jean shorts.”
What hurt her, besides the actual harassment, was also her mother’s suggestion that she should wear less form-fitting clothes, she says.
“Well-intentioned but misguided. It led me to believe for many years that the onus of protecting my modesty was on me instead of on the people that didn’t have the decency to respect it.”
Most of the women I spoke to are all too aware that they shouldn’t have to change the way they dress to avoid unwanted responses.
But they do it anyway, at least in spaces where they might not feel as safe, such as the MRT.
Maybe it’s the enclosed nature of the space which leaves little room to escape any potential negative interactions. Or maybe it’s the presence of older Singaporean folk who usually lean on the more conservative side.
Wearing a midriff-baring crop top feels perfectly fine on the streets of Orchard Road, where practically every other girl wears something similar. On the train, though, standing next to young students and elderly aunties on their way to church, you can’t help feeling like an outlier.
It’s a little contradictory, I know. As much as I’m dressing up for myself, the point of curating an outfit is to be seen.
The subway shirt puts control back in the hands of the woman wearing it. I’m not completely curbing my self-expression or bending to the older generation’s standards. I’m simply choosing who gets to perceive my body—saving the supposedly slutty outfits for safer spaces, if you will.