There’s a scene in the second season of the Sopranos where Tony returns home from Vesuvio with a garment bag. He walks into his kitchen and sees his wife Carmela writing checks at the kitchen table, face affixed in a grimace, which melts away when Tony reveals what’s in the bag: a sumptuous, floor-length fur coat. As she always does when presented with a lavish gift, Carm knows the coat was procured via illegal means. But that doesn’t stop her from modeling it for her husband while naked underneath, a form of mob-wife foreplay that inevitably leads to thank-you sex.
That image of Carmela — sensuous, alluring, lit in chiaroscuro, and draped in the fruits of her husband’s criminality — is, fittingly, what graces the Carmela T-shirt. An homage to the many looks Edie Falco’s character served over six seasons, the Carmela shirt is routinely spoon-fed via algorithm to nostalgia-happy millennials and zoomers on Instagram. Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve seen exactly two strangers and three of my online friends posting themselves wearing the shirt, including author Nic DiDomizio. “She’s super feminine but also has big dick energy, and is also just quintessential Jersey Italian mom,” says DiDomizio, 33, who loves Jersey Italian moms so much that he wrote a novel, Burn It All Down, about them.
In the nearly two decades since the show has been off the airwaves, The Sopranos has amassed an unlikely reputation as a time capsule of early-2000s style, in some ways arguably even more so than its HBO Sunday night counterpart, Sex and the City (Adriana La Cerva could certainly rock a belt nonsensically circling her taut midriff, but Carrie Bradshaw could never pull off a button-down cheetah-print onesie). The show presented a richly detailed view of contemporary North Jersey life, and it paid just as much attention to its style; there are entire Instagram accounts devoted to celebrating Gloria Trillo’s belted trenches, Furio’s revolving cast of garish printed blouses, and Paulie Walnuts’ oddly elegant suspender/tank top combos.
But it’s Carm who has emerged as the show’s most vaunted style icon. “She is a visionary of upper-class mom fashion with her blazers and her knits and her manicures, plus her MILF bob she gets in later seasons,” says writer Chingy Nea. “She even has her own trademark piece of jewelry with that gold cross always around her neck layered under other jewelry, showing she is both a ‘good’ Catholic but also ‘makes an expensive home,’ as [Tony Soprano’s mistress played by Annabella Sciorra] Gloria Trillo put it.”
Zoomers cosplay as Carm, donning tennis bracelets and high-waisted pants and lip-synching to her most iconic dialogue; brands have even incorporated her in their marketing, with the contemporary and vintage jewelry purveyor FortuneBaby recently photoshopping a vintage diamond tennis necklace she had for sale onto an image of Carmella. Founder Joanna Serven says that when she first found the necklace, Carmela popped in her mind, even though she hadn’t seen the show in years. “That’s how specific her style was and that’s how much it [still] resonates with people,” she says. Her followers seemed to agree: the necklace sold almost immediately.
Among young people, we’re seeing a resurgence of Y2K-era style in general. Zoomers have enthusiastically embraced the low-rise jeans, graphic baby tees, and Jelly platform sandals of the early-2000s era, leaning into the aesthetic of fashion plates like Adriana and Meadow Soprano, whose crop tops formed the basis of an entire 250-word article in The Cut in 2019 (yes, I wrote it. What of it?).
Carm’s cult following exists in part because of how accessible her style is compared to the other two. If you don’t have Adriana’s abs or Meadow’s seemingly endless supply of Delia’s back catalogues, you can always tease your bangs and throw on a ribbed crop top and a bunch of layered gold necklaces and call it a day. Some Carm fans I spoke with, however, viewed her style as actively aspirational, seeing it as the ultimate embodiment of luxury, comfort, and privilege.
“Her whole look suggests she’s wealthy enough to make being put-together one of her main priorities, but she still has a lot of ‘tacky’ nouveau-riche elements like the long acrylics,” says Magdalene Taylor, a 25-year-old writer and Carmela superfan. “Like, I want to be a housewife/stay-at-home mom who still has the time to get my nails done and do my hair every morning, because she’s paying someone else to do most of the cleaning.”
Part of the reason why Carmela has become an unlikely style icon is due to the rise of the bimbo aesthetic. As Rolling Stone previously reported, the bimbo has made a comeback among zoomers on TikTok, who venerate both the markers of early-aughts capitalism associated with icons like Paris Hilton — the Juicy Couture tracksuits, the Tiffany bracelets, the sassy graphic tees — and the dumb blond lifestyle itself. “It’s not about being ignorant,” TikTok creator Griffin Maxwell Brooks told me last year. “You’re letting go of your consciousness in order to achieve this higher level of enlightenment.” In some ways, the veneration of the bimbo is a direct response to contemporary #GirlBoss feminism, or the idea that women can have it all: “I think young women are increasingly realizing that desiring both a career and a family is a capitalist scam and wishing we could just be housewives instead. It’s just not financially feasible for most,” says Taylor. To paraphrase comedian Ali Wong, given the option to Lean In, the bimbo would rather lie down.
Carmela is not a bimbo in the traditional sense; she’s tough as gristle and cunning to a fault (see: the ricott’ pie scene). Far from being ignorant, her acute awareness of her own circumstances is what leads her to experience psychic turmoil. But the iconography of Carmela, as Taylor puts it, “connects to bimboism because she represents a lifestyle dictated primarily by leisure and aesthetics. Bimboism is a way of pretending we don’t need to worry about these greater problems.” Part of what makes Carmela so fascinating is watching her struggle against her own fundamentally decent nature in order to maintain her privilege. Time and again, she is offered the option to escape from her cosseted existence; and time and again, despite her numerous merits, she makes the wrong choice. Given the choice to lean out from her life of luxury, she repeatedly chooses to lie down. This doesn’t make her particularly admirable. But it definitely makes her compelling.
“She was a flawed woman, but she always had the hair, the nails, the jewels. She struggled with a lot, but she always looked fucking fantastic,” says Serven. “I think there’s a lot to be said for managing to pull that off. We’re all flawed, we all struggle with things, we all want to look fucking fantastic.”