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What the ‘naked dress’ exposes

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Picture: Reuters – Jennifer Lopez models a redesign of her famous green dress at the Versace Spring/Summer 2020 collection during fashion week in Milan, Italy on Friday September 20, 2019.

By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Now you see it, now you don’t? After ruling the red carpet for more than a decade, the naked dress may be on its last legs. The barely there dresses were barely there at the recent MTV Video Music Awards. Instead, the carpet – black, not red – was obscured by trains, capes, feathers, flounces and other fruits of fashion’s post-pandemic maximalist turn.

Even one of the show’s skimpiest looks, Taylor Swift’s backless Oscar de la Renta, somehow managed to be minimalist and maximalist at the same time, substituting bedazzled chains for fabric. There might have been plenty of skin on display, but it wasn’t highlighted by transparent or flesh-colored fabrics.

A naked dress is a bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s aphorism about pornography: You know it when you see it – or don’t see it. “Naked dress” may be an oxymoron, but it’s an apt description for garments that reveal as much as they conceal, because they’re sheer, skin-toned, skintight or all of the above. Though they’ve often been dismissed as attention-seeking (and attention-getting) “thirst traps”, these naked dresses have often served as powerful instruments of female sexual agency across fashion history.

In more buttoned-up times, the phrase signified strapless dresses, not sheer ones. When the couturier Mainbocher introduced the gravity-defying gowns in 1934, awestruck journalists marvelled that they seemed “to stay in place only by a miracle”, as New York World-Telegram fashion editor Gertrude Bailey noted.

A similar sartorial sleight-of-hand produced “illusion gowns”, closely resembling the naked dress as we know it. First worn by burlesque artists and showgirls, they migrated to movie studios, adorning early silver screen sirens like Theda Bara, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich. The style went mainstream when Marilyn Monroe was sewn into an illusion gown made by Hollywood costumer Jean Louis to sing “Happy Birthday” to President John F Kennedy at a 1962 Democratic Party fundraiser at Madison Square Garden. The rhinestone-studded silk soufflé, dyed to match Monroe’s skin tone, disappeared under the stage lights; to the audience, it looked like she was clad in nothing but rhinestones.

Near-sheer dresses graced runways and red carpets on and off throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. But they weren’t called “naked dresses” until 1998, when an early episode of “Sex in the City” recoined the term. Carrie Bradshaw wore what her prim friend Charlotte disapprovingly called a “naked dress” on a date with Mr Big. Carrie’s dress wasn’t a showgirl-style evening gown, however, or even what we could call a “naked dress” today. Instead, it was a backless slip dress – short but not transparent. More importantly, the matte putty color didn’t match the glowing rose-gold of actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s skin, so there was no illusion of nudity.

Nevertheless, “naked dress” resonated with the stripped-down minimalism of 1990s fashion, which Museum at FIT curator Colleen Hill has called a reaction to the more-is-more aesthetic of the 1980s and the resulting recession. Like Botticelli’s Venus, the naked dress emerged out of the era’s neutral shades and sleek, unembellished silhouettes that exposed fresh areas of the female anatomy: midriffs, hipbones, bum cleavage. The term “side-boob” was coined in 1994 (by actor Mike Myers, per the Oxford English Dictionary) to describe an entirely new erogenous zone showcased by the revealing styles; Liz Hurley stepped out in Versace’s black safety-pin gown the same year.

By the early 2000s, side-boob was the new cleavage, the subject of think pieces in Salon and the New York Times. “Part of its appeal is that it hints at revealing something … while also keeping its wearer covered up,” Salon explained. Similarly, naked dresses offered the illusion of nudity rather than the reality; instead of baring any single body part, they forced the eye to rove, taking in the whole silhouette.

The naked dress trend was directly responsible for one of the major innovations to come out of the dot-com boom: Google Images. When Jennifer Lopez attended the 2000 Grammy Awards in a plunging, sheer silk Versace gown held together by nothing more than a citrine brooch and double-sided tape, she broke the internet. “At the time, it was the most popular search query we had ever seen,” former Google CEO Eric Schmidt remembered. ”But we had no surefire way of getting users exactly what they wanted: JLo wearing that dress.”

Search results produced simple pages of text with links; Google realised it needed an image search tool, and developed one, introduced in 2001. The dress that launched Google Images raised the bar for red-carpet style and – more than a decade before Instagram – prefigured the role of social media in setting fashion trends (and sharing NSFW photos).

It’s a look guaranteed to make people look twice, so it’s no wonder that the naked dress became a red-carpet mainstay in the digital age. With so many fashion designers clamoring for free publicity – and so many photographers and journalists eager to give it to them – celebrities went to ever-greater lengths to get noticed. Thanks to the backdrop of the step-and-repeat – a temporary wall plastered with sponsor logos – as well as instantaneous uploading to social media, the red carpet became a digital billboard. With its audacity and trompe l’oeil visual appeal, the naked dress was the perfect clickbait. Walking a fine line between exposure and overexposure, it required only one accessory: confidence.

Naked dresses are fashion statements in more ways than one. At the 2002 Academy Awards, Halle Berry’s burgundy Elie Saab gown with a sweeping satin skirt and a sheer bodice decorated with strategically placed bands of floral embroidery raised eyebrows. Though Berry had one of the most famous bodies in Hollywood, the bombshell look was at odds with the dramatic role for which she was nominated, in the feel-bad film “Monster’s Ball.” But later that night, when Berry became the first (and, to date, only) Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar, it suddenly seemed fitting that she’d proudly shown her skin on a red carpet that had not always been welcoming to women of color.

The move epitomized how naked dresses empower women who might be overlooked due to stereotypes or bigotry. As a fashion and makeup entrepreneur, Barbados-born singer/actress Rihanna has been outspoken about offering options for a wide range of sizes and skin tones, so it’s fitting that she has repeatedly demonstrated that she’s comfortable in her own skin (and not much else) on the red carpet. Canadian model Winnie Harlow has the skin condition vitiligo, which causes uneven, patchy pigmentation. When she wears a naked dress, she’s baring more than her figure; she’s baring her unique skin, knowing it will make some people uncomfortable. Video Music Awards honoree and body positivity icon Lizzo celebrated her plus-size figure by wearing a purple naked dress to rapper Cardi B.’s most recent birthday party. These women of color use fashion – what it conceals and reveals – to challenge expectations about beauty, race and the female body, presenting themselves as works of art.

Given the storied history of naked dresses, it is a shame that their days may well be numbered. Along with covid, blame Kim Kardashian’s controversial choice to attend May’s Met Gala wearing Marilyn Monroe’s iconic Jean Louis gown. The stunt wasn’t just a slap in the face to the historic costume preservation the event supports, but a futile attempt to replicate the original “illusion” of nudity the gown created. Despite a last-minute crash diet, the gown didn’t fit Kardashian’s figure or match her complexion. It didn’t look “naked”; indeed, it was hardly even recognisable as the same dress, serving up Carrie Bradshaw’s bland beige slip rather than “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” In the glare of the spotlight, the archetypal naked dress became the emperor’s new clothes.

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is a fashion historian. Her most recent book is “Skirts: Fashioning Modern Femininity in the Twentieth Century.”

This article was first published in The Washington Post