Featured in The Wall Street Journal

For mini Swifties and Alabama sorority girls-to-be, the Dallas boutique Dear Hannah Prep is a pink-and-green, balloon-filled wonderland. The store, a little sister to adult shop Dear Hannah down the street, is chock-full of everything a tween girl might want to wear for home games, slumber parties, screenings of the “Barbie” movie, or a school dance. Arranged in rainbow-colored stacks are: gear emblazoned with “St. Tropez,” “Montauk” and “Slay,” stackable bracelets, tie-dye sweats, mini shorts. 

And crop tops. Lots and lots of crop tops. 

For many tweens—and their parents—crop tops are a cute, innocent way to express their burgeoning interest in fashion, and their body positivity. For others, they are inappropriate. Many schools have explicitly cracked down on them in recent years. Despite, or perhaps because of, their divisiveness, crop tops for tweens have become big business.

Dear Hannah Prep, which has over 300,000 followers on TikTok, is ground zero for the recent rise in tween crop tops. Its viral videos, which have received millions of likes, feature tweens shopping, sipping sugary Starbucksdrinks and “Disneybounding” (dressing like a Disney character using regular clothes). In almost every video, the tweens are wearing crop tops, some showing more midriff than others.

Walk into almost any store that carries kidswear these days, from Walmart to Saks Fifth Avenue, and you’ll see at least one crop top. They tend to start around size 6-8, but go as small as babies sizes. Zara has made them a mainstay of its children’s collections. On Chinese fast-fashion site Shein there are over 1,000 tween-size crop top styles—I lost count on its sprawling website. Beyond fast fashion, high-end designers from Fendi to Stella McCartney to Versace offer crop tops for tweens.

 Crop tops are so omnipresent, it can be hard to find a non-cropped top for tweens and teens these days. 

“I go into stores and I want a full-length shirt, but they’re all cropped,” said Ella Sophie Nagel, 16, a New Jersey high-school student and burgeoning teen influencer who’s been wearing crop tops since she was a tween. She goes to thrift shops when she wants something that actually extends down to her pants.

While crop tops emerged for teens and women in the groovy 1970s, and became a staple around the time Britney Spears sang “Baby One More Time” in 1998, they’ve only trickled down to the tween market in a big way in the past few years. 

Adult fashion has hit Peak Crop Top, with the trend evolving to include pregnant women and men, and tops as skimpy as bras. Tween-beloved stars like Olivia Rodrigo and Emma Chamberlain appear to live in crop tops. Taylor Swift wore one to the Grammys this year. It is no wonder tweens want in.

Stores are scrambling to keep up with the demand.

“I keep buying more of them because they sell faster than the full-length shirts,” said Kelly Dowdy, the founder, buyer and owner of high-end kids’ boutique English Rabbit in Beverly Hills, Calif. 

Dowdy said she was initially hesitant to offer a trend that was “too risky.” She said, “I didn’t want to scare moms away from thinking our store was pushing a look that maybe the parents were not OK with.” She warmed to the trend when she saw how more elevated designers were doing it, showing less skin and in sweater styles. The store sells pieces like cropped sweatshirts from Palm Angels, boxy Marni T-shirts, and embroidered tops from Stella McCartney.

Now, said Dowdy, “We have customers who won’t buy anything if it’s not a crop top. They wear uniforms at school, and when they’re not at school they’re in a crop top.”

“They do well,” said Sylvana Ward Durrett, CEO and co-founder of the chic children’s e-commerce site Maisonette. She said that search for products with “cropped” in the name has more than doubled from fall 2022 to fall 2023.

How young is too young for a crop top? Ward Durrett said that Maisonette focuses on the older kid and tween sizes: “It’s sort of around when your kids start deciding what they want to wear, I would say it’s somewhere between seven and eight.”

Nagel’s mother, Michelle Blashka, who also has a 14-year-old daughter and has been navigating the crop-top world since her girls were tweens, said, “Honestly, crop tops don’t bother me. I encourage her to wear them. I think she looks great. Let her celebrate and enjoy her body now while she still has it.”

Crop tops are banned at many schools. Last year, a group of teen boys at College Heights Secondary School in British Columbia protested what they viewed as dress codes targeting girls by wearing extreme crop tops to school. In 2021, a group of girls at Natomas Charter School’s Performing and Fine Arts Academy in Sacramento, Calif., protested the school’s dress code by scrawling messages like “Am I distracting” on their bellies.

Ward Durrett cautioned against pushing the policing too far. She connected the crop top’s rise to a “backlash against body shaming.” She continued, “I think it’s this idea that any midriff, regardless of the size or shape, is acceptable and everyone should be proud of their bodies.”

Even as some schools allow crop tops, parents have their own lines in the sand. Blashka mentioned synagogue as a no-go zone, “and a funeral.” 

Stacy Ellis, the mom of 12-year-old Austyn Ryli James in Jacksonville, Fla., said that she didn’t allow them for church, shopping or school functions. Their family is religious, and she said it was a “touchy subject,” especially in regard to the more conservative relatives. She said, “I get quoted the Bible verses of modesty and [they say] you’re sexualizing your child.”

All the parents and retailers I spoke with stressed the importance of styling crop tops in tasteful ways for tweens. That might mean wearing them with high-waisted trousers, choosing looser, more covered-up cuts or going for cropped cardigans instead of tank tops. Dowdy said, “We don’t sell super-cropped tops or pair them with super-short shorts.” 

When I asked Austyn and her mom if they ever quibbled over midriff, the tween answered immediately, laughing, “All the time.” 

For some, the most tasteful option is opting out of crop tops altogether. Markey Hutchinson, the founder and CEO of proper Lexington, Ky., children’s wear line the Beaufort Bonnet Company, said she would never make a kid’s or tween crop top because “our customer base would question our brand integrity and identity if we did something like that.”

“You just want to preserve the magic of childhood,” said Hutchinson. She cited the need to combat bullying and promote positive body image, and avoiding unwanted attention for tweens. “I’m really surprised that the companies are rolling this out and wanting to profit off of just hitting fast-forward on childhood.”

Hutchinson said it was easy to ban crop tops as a CEO and designer, but as the parent to a 12-year-old daughter, she wasn’t so sure: “No judgment, because I don’t know when I’m going to be up against that and having to make that decision for my daughter.”