When Calvin Harris hit the gym last weekend in the midst of a maelstrom of gossip over his breakup with Taylor Swift, Twitter went wild. Over his Yeezys, that is. I mean, he had to know what he was doing, right? After all, Swift is embroiled in a very public feud with Kanye West, designer of the aforementioned sneakers (Tay probably burned her pair the second the “Famous” video dropped).
Shade was thrown; shots were fired—and Harris didn’t even have to make out with a movie star on a beach.
When celebrities know they’re going to be photographed (which, rest assured, they almost always do, however “candid” those paparazzi photos may look), one of the easiest ways for them to spread a message without saying a word is through what they wear.
In the mid-2000s, the medium of choice was the graphic T-shirt—splashed with a smug kiss-off and ideally purchased from Kitson, the paparazzi-magnet Robertson Boulevard boutique frequented by stars like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears. Take, for instance, Kristin Cavallari’s “You Can Have Him” message to Nicole Richie, who at the time was rumored to be fooling around with Cavallari’s ex Brody Jenner, worn oh-so-casually out and about in Los Angeles.
Whole brands were built on the backs of these tees: Chip & Pepper; Sex Brand (designed by George Clooney’s ex, Krista Allen); White Trash Charms, whose “Team Aniston” and “Team Jolie” slogan shirts accumulated monthslong waitlists and reams of celebrity fans in 2005.
In the age of social media, stars can be a little more subtle, Instagramming a selfie in a borrowed T-shirt or Snapchatting a glimpse of an initial necklace matching the one their new, famous boyfriend has been spotted wearing. Internet sleuths will catch on, rest assured. Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik have proven themselves masters of the form, leveraging their followings to hint at a relationship by sharing glasses and “accidentally” flashing a cutesy phone screensaver, and keep breakup rumors at bay with an artfully deployed “Z” necklace.
Using clothing rather than words to fuel gossip has clear advantages for a celebrity: It keeps people talking, for one (Lord, how many feverish headlines have Zigi alone generated in the past eight months?), and in Harris’s case, it’s less aggressive than trashing an ex in the press or on social media.
Fashion can also be a means of breaking the fourth wall, giving stars a chance to acknowledge and respond to the rumor mill without the earnestness of a magazine interview. Think of Winona Ryder appearing on the cover of W in 2002 wearing a “Free Winona” T-shirt fresh off her shoplifting conviction, Lohan browsing the racks at Kitson in a “Skinny Bitch” shirt while headlines accused her of anorexia, or Naomi Campbell thumbing her nose at critics in a “Naomi Hit Me … and I Loved It” tee amid allegations that she head-butted a former assistant.
Of course, the line between irreverent and idiotic is thin, and Chris Brown—surprise, surprise—fell squarely on the latter side of it in 2009 wearing a $300,000 blinged-out chain with the word “Oops” to P. Diddy’s White Party after-party a month after pleading guilty to assaulting then-girlfriend Rihanna.
Ahead, take a trip down memory lane with a look back at how celebrities from Lohan the Kim Kardashian have used their wardrobe to play the gossip industry like fiddles over the years.