Subway shirt TikTok trend highlights reality of women facing unwanted attention on public transport

By Jennifer Raymont

Updated May 19, 2023 at 09:01 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

This weekend, London is set to be basking in sunshine, with highs of 20 degrees. As summer begins, so do the weather-appropriate outfits we’ve been planning all winter to help motivate us through the cold, depressing and overwhelmingly grey season. I can’t wait for sundresses and sambas, linen and lace, and of course, Birkenstocks and bikinis. Might even throw in a platform Croc or two.

However, as we jump on the tube for drinkies with the girlies, we also run the risk of facing a lot more men with pointed uncomfortable stares. While we spend the winter looking forward to what is, in my opinion, the superior season, being made to feel uncomfortable in an outfit we’re proud of comes with nothing but dread. Sadly, this isn’t a new phenomenon, but women across the pond in New York City have come up with a makeshift solution.

Influencers on TikTok have been sharing their “subway shirts” to help protect against any unsolicited stares. Essentially, your baggy, graphic T-shirts are making their way out of your pyjamas drawers and into your handbags to be thrown on before heading onto the dreaded subway in your favourite clubbing garms.

@quesoscorpio

stay safe ladiessss #nycsubway

♬ Coconut Mall (From "Mario Kart Wii") - Arcade Player

T-shirts can definitely be a girl’s best friend in times like these. Summer clothes can often provide pretty minimal coverage because of the fact that it’s unbearably hot outside, and even hotter underground. Also, despite the fact that a number of us are often fans of the oversized Adam Sandler look, there are other times when we just want to wear something a bit more flimsy—particularly when it’s scorching weather.

Although we should never perpetuate the idea that it matters what a woman is wearing when sexual harassment or assault occurs, every woman will have in common the experience of being made to feel uncomfortable by men as a consequence of their outfit, no matter how “appropriate” it may be considered. So, the “Subway shirt” or “outfit dampener” acts as protection. But should it seriously be up to us to protect ourselves from this kind of behaviour?

@itssophiemilner

I didnt realise everyone else did this too 🥲 its a huge problem in london. Theres so many outfits ive just never worn out, or had to change so much, just because i knew people would make me feel uncomfortable for wearing it - be it catcalling or stares. #catcalling #subwayshirt #tubeshirt #subwayoutfit #tubeoutfit #ootd

♬ A work of art by s_johnson_voiceovers - Stefan Johnson

Going viral on social media, girls have been comparing their actual, hot weather appropriate fits with their public transport looks. TikTok is a platform predominantly used by gen Z, meaning girls as young as 12 are relating and becoming accustomed to this kind of unwanted staring.

Between October 2021 and September 2022, there were 2,361 sexual harassment offences on London’s public transport, and that doesn’t include the incidents that went unreported, a sad reality which is often the case. This prompted TFL to launch a campaign to combat the issue. A series of posters and social media posts tackle four main offensive acts: staring, upskirting, pressing and touching.

One poster, on the other hand, advises passengers on what to do if they witness sexual harassment or are indeed a victim. TFL suggests asking a question, such as “what’s the next stop?” or “do you have the time?” to a fellow passenger in an attempt to distract the perpetrator. Like the subway shirt, the onus falls on women rather than preventing sexual harassment in the first place.

The subway shirt is a fun fad to make light of a dangerous issue that runs rampant across the world, whether you’re on the New York City subway, the London Underground or the Paris Metro. While I may be guilty of a Marilyn moment when a gust of wind blows my dress up as I go up the escalator, I can’t combat the elements but I can hold men accountable. Public transport is a means of getting from A to B, from home to the office to school or to meet friends. It should be as simple as that.

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