The miniskirt was popularized by Mary Quant in the 1960s. Coco Chanel brought the LBD to public consciousness. But who do we thank when it comes to the baby tee? Linda Meltzer of Tease Tee’s and Pretties.
During the ‘90s, a shrunken-down version of a regular T-shirt, now famously known as a baby tee, became a ubiquitous trend, worn by everyone from Kate Moss to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Quinn in MTV’s Daria. The Delia’s catalog, coveted by teens of the same era, was filled with various baby tee styles, but you could also get the look by shopping in the kids’ section of any department store. The original design, made from 100% baby rib cotton and a contrasting, scalloped elastic trim, was the brainchild of Meltzer and her company Tease Tee’s. It was featured in TV shows and movies, like Friends and Clueless, and worn by various celebrities for magazine photoshoots. (There’s a certain YM cover burned in my memory of Drew Barrymore wearing a red Tease Tee’s baby tee.)
Prior to launching Tease Tee’s, Meltzer was a stylist for movies and music videos. Her specialty was vintage, and to this day, she considers herself an avid treasure hunter. She was a big fan of soft, French-cut tees from the ‘70s, like the ones she’d inherited from her older sister, who she calls “a fashion fiend,” and the vintage ones she’d borrow from her punk boyfriend, who “had the best style.” More T-shirt inspiration came from “the punk rock girls,” recalls Meltzer, like Debbie Harry wearing a tiny “Camp Funtime” tee, which was famously photographed.
But these worn-in, comfortable T-shirts were always hard to find, even for an expert thrifter like Meltzer. “I was professionally shopping day in and day out and still could barely find them. So I said, ‘I’m going to make some between my next movie gig,’ and that’s when the baby tee was born,” she tells NYLON. She knew she wanted to make them with the super-soft, delicate fabric that the French-cut tees were made from, which is called baby rib, as it’s made for baby clothes. In 1993, most garment makers used jersey fabric, a cheaper and not-as-soft alternative, so she had to source the fabric from Georgia, then get the shirts made locally in Los Angeles. Once the tees were produced, she headed to Fred Segal, where she used to work. “Fred Segal was such a seminal store in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s,” says Meltzer. The buyer saw the baby tee she was wearing and wanted 10 of every color she had, even before there was an official name for her business. On the drive home, she came up with one: Tease Tee’s.
The trip to the retailer soon proved to be a smart decision for Meltzer to make. “Most stylists would just go to Fred Segal and just pull everything from there,” she says. It wouldn’t be long before those stylists put her baby tees on Jennifer Aniston in Friends, Brandy on the cover of her “Baby” single, and Selena Quintanilla in the music video for “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” Meltzer understands why the tee made such an impact back then: “It was disruptive, because before that, it was all oversized T-shirts.” The baby tee was the response to the big, baggy T-shirts seen in grunge and hip-hop fashion at the time. Similar to Debbie Harry in the ‘70s, musicians in the riot grrrl scene often wore vintage children’s tees. One famous photo of Bikini Kill shows Kathleen Hanna in a Little Mermaid girls tee.
Then there was Clueless. Once Cher Horowitz twirled her fluffy pink pen and pondered about “searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie,” while wearing a Tease Tee, the brand was catapulted into the mainstream. But the tie-dye heart tee that Brittany Murphy’s character, Tai, poses in during the post-makeover scene that is most associated with Meltzer? It was a fake.
“Clueless is actually a lot of knockoffs,” says Meltzer. “That’s not my actual heart shirt. I was the victim of an inside job knockoff.” According to Meltzer, her sales rep sold her designs at a trade show under a different name, and told everyone that Tease Tee’s went out of business. “Back before Instagram, I couldn't control my branding. Because your sales rep knows you have these big companies, they just kind of took it from you,” she says.
Meltzer was also commissioned to make shirts for Fashion Café, the themed restaurant and ill-fated business venture between supermodels Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Christy Turlington, and Elle MacPherson. (“They luckily paid me before they went bankrupt,” she notes.) She also did the clothing line Milk Fed with Sofia Coppola in 1994. Aside from the baby tee, another design that Meltzer was known for was a bra-like camisole, a tank top that had a bit of structure in it that preceded built-in bra tops, which Reese Witherspoon wore on the red carpet in 1997.
In 2001, Meltzer shut down Tease Tee’s, but in 2016, she returned with a new name and a boutique in Venice called Pretties, which was centered on structured lingerie. She decided to bring back the baby tees, but they hardly sold — that is, until St. Vincent’s stylist, Avigail Collins, came in and “went nutso” over the tees. Interest slowly began to grow again, until it culminated with the recent resurgence of ‘90s and 2000s style. Now, the brand has also gotten more popular through TikTok, with users showing off their “Pretties hauls.” Meltzer has brought back many of the popular designs from back in the day, including Rachel Green’s lime green tee, the Fashion Café tees, a metallic sparkle tee that Kim Kardashian wore in a photobooth pic from 1995, a striped tee that Brittany Murphy wore during the “Rolling With the Homies” scene in Clueless, and the famous tie-dye heart tee (which was originally inspired by a shirt Meltzer got from the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show).
Meltzer says that if that betrayal with her sales rep didn’t happen, Tease Tee’s would probably have been a bigger success. Still, her impact is undeniable. The momentum of the baby tee led to the graphic tee trend of the 2000s, made famous by Juicy Couture (one of the co-founders, Pamela Skaist-Levy, is Metzer’s “bestie”) and a style loved by Britney Spears (how can anyone forget the iconic Juicy Couture “Dump him” T-shirt following her breakup with Justin Timberlake?). And while it’s often mentioned in listicles as an example of ‘90s-era trends, the baby tee never really went away. In fact, it could be considered a classic basic much like the standard T-shirt. These days, you can find them at almost any contemporary retailer, like Cotton On and Madewell, which carry their own popular versions.
Meltzer’s Venice brick-and-mortar store was a casualty of the pandemic, but Pretties has a new life, thanks to its popularity on Instagram. Meltzer is excited to bring back more reissued styles, such as the Selena tee, another Rachel Green design, and a star tee. But most of all, Meltzer likes how she’s able to have ownership of her brand, which allows her to directly connect with customers, many who reach out and share when they score a Tease Tee’s original from somewhere like Depop or eBay. “I love, love, love how people can just reach out. It's not as anonymous as before when you’re just designing stuff and giving it to a rep,” she says. “It's very personal. It’s satisfying.”