TLC -- Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas -- shaped the R&B landscape in the ‘90s with their indominable girl-power hits. In addition to their musical output, they were fashion icons who helped define the era and left a lasting impact on style that continues up through today. (Read about TLC's 2017 comeback here.)
The 2017 version of overalls: Fitted, cropped, and when not crafted from denim, they’re cut from something fancy or fashion-y, like leather or silk. The 1993 version of overalls worn by TLC: Straight-up utilitarian—as in, straight-up badass—with a loose-fit coverall-like silhouette, quite possibly made by Carhartt.
A Stand for Safe Sex + Sexual Expression
When you’re photographed as much as a celebrity, the easiest way to make a statement is through what you’re wearing. Ruth Negga, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Karlie Kloss, and Busy Philipps did just that at the 2017 Oscars, making a political stand by accessorizing with a blue ribbon to bring awareness to the ACLU (Emma Stone sported a Planned Parenthood pin).
But TLC—most famously Left Eye—was doing that long before this year’s awards show. She used to affix a condom to the left lens of her glasses (emphasizing her nickname), and the group often decorated outfits by pinning or taping condoms all over.
"By making it a fashion statement we're doing something more important—making a social statement," Lopes said in a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Kids listen to performers and we have a duty to give them certain critical information. We wanted something eye-catching, so when kids see the condoms, they ask why do we wear condoms and talk about condoms? That brings up the issue of safe sex. The point is to make condoms something kids aren't afraid of or ashamed of."
Nope, not just boyfriend jeans—TLC went straight to the source and shopped from the men’s department. And they weren’t above DIY-ing it, either. “Everything from the music to our clothes was truly authentic,” Thomas said. “Lisa and I were in my basement spray-painting our overalls.”
And in an interview with Teen Vogue, Thomas said that when she met T-Boz and Left Eye, “they were buying jeans that a size 38. Three little cute girls dressed like boys was cool back then. Our style was cartoonish, but fly at the same time.”
Champion & Tommy Hilfiger
It wasn’t just Dolce & Gabbana—the trio experimented with the luxe and the more affordable, appearing at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards in 1995 in matching Tommy Hilfiger-branded crop top-and-boxer sets (Tommy Hilfiger was one of the few brands that transcended fashion genres, from Americana prep to R&B/hip-hop in the ‘90s).
Twenty-plus years and seasons of minimal, nondescript items later, logomania has returned in a major way, with Gen Z-ers and younger millennials reaching back to the ‘90s for nostalgic pieces. The retailer that has really capitalized on this resurgence? Urban Outfitters and its line-up of throwback collaborations: Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and Fila.
The Crop Top-Boxer-Sweatpants Look
Swap the sweats for black compression leggings, and this shot of Chilli, Left Eye, and T-Boz on the red carpet at the APLA ‘Commitment To Life’ Benefit in 1996 could be mistaken for three girls on their way to brunch. Right?
Men’s Boxers + Crop Tops
On the shirttails of extra-large, frame-swallowing clothing were boxers. Whether they intended to or not, the group broke gender norms and embraced androgyny with their matching Dolce & Gabbana boxers that peeked out from underneath baggy denim, and styled with a stomach-exposing crop top (and we all know how big that ‘90s fashion comeback was).
And it’s this silhouette that has gone down in pop culture history as TLC’s trademark look—it’s referenced repeatedly in today’s obsession with all things ‘90s. In Gap’s recent “Bridging the Gap” campaign, model Adwoa Aboah starred in the ad in a cropped long-sleeve tee, with boxers and baggy jeans—a clear homage to TLC. The same look punctuated Rihanna’s fall 2017 Fenty x Puma line-up (one was, coincidentally enough, modeled by Aboah). And social media’s favorite star Kylie Jenner regularly serves up the same look in men’s Puma boxers.
In 2017, we’re obsessed with 1) the ‘90s, and 2) ourselves, because branding = social currency gold. There’s Kylie Jenner and her line of Kylie-branded clothing (her name stamped across the back of a pair of briefs comes readily to mind), Justin Bieber has his tour merch, and most It girls (Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, etc) have their names or initials embroidered across custom shirts, jackets, jeans, and bags (most brands offer personalization services, including Burberry, Edie Parker, Gucci, etc.).
But the queens of self-promotion in 1996? TLC. They showed up at the 1999 Kid’s Choice Awards with the letters “T,” “L,” and “C” as their tops.
The Lace-Up, Frayed, Monochromatic Trend
Um, was TLC actually Kanye West’s inspiration for his Yeezy line? Because it sure appears to be that way, judging from their looks at the 1995 MTV Music Awards, in which they twinned (tripleted?) in monochromatic, deliberately distressed, somewhat revealing/sexy (and at the same time, baggy) separates, washed in faded neutrals
TLC embraced unapologetically baggy, deliberately slouchy pieces, which pointed to their fearless attitude, their steadfast refusal to follow trends, and their authenticity—both musically and sartorially.
“Especially being young ladies, and not wanting to wear the typical outfits that girls would wear, like tight dresses—there’s nothing wrong with that look, but it wasn’t what we felt comfortable in,” Thomas previously told Billboard. “For our first album, we were our own dressers. We didn’t have no stylists. We came up with all of the ideas when it came to dressing. There’s no way in the world we could do the dances that we did in high heels and tight dresses—it would just be a total accident [waiting to happen]. We’d be in the hospital somewhere with broken ankles.”
Now, with the rise of streetwear -- courtesy of the very buzzy label Vetements spearheaded by fashion’s golden boy Demna Gvasalia -- comically large, intentionally disproportionate silhouettes, and boxy outerwear, are all very much “in” among the fashion set.