It is the year 1783 in the court of Versailles. The infamous perfumed court is the picture of near-grotesque luxury, the remnants of the bygone era of rococo still prominent in the fashion of the elites in their stylised powdered wigs, and the quality and quantity of heavily embroidered, bespoke clothing. Marie Antoinette’s discardment of elaborate layers and structured skirts in favour of a cotton dress that resembled an undergarment of the era certainly raised some eyebrows.
The dress in question was a white cotton robe de gaulle that looked like a fancier chemise with puffy sleeves and layered frills along the collar. The colour combined with the queen’s skin resulted in an appearance that gave the illusion of nudity. The outcry that ensued echoed in the elite American circles in 1962 with Marilyn Monroe’s serenade of John. F Kennedy on his birthday. As she stepped on stage, Monroe revealed the intricately designed gown that had been tailored to her exact measurements and skin tone.
The strategically-bejeweled dress gave the illusion of an ethereal nakedness under the bright stage lights as she began her performance. Many have remarked that the combination of her deep, near-whispered singing in combination with her dress resulted in a rather sultry display (as a side note, one tragically cannot discuss this dress without being reminded of Kim Kardashian’s infamous stunt wearing this dress at the 2022 Met Gala. She allegedly damaged the dress in the five minutes she spent in it. Perhaps she assumed that stepping into another woman’s dress was as easy as stepping into a different racial origin).
This style now graces the headlines of leading fashion magazines as the “Naked Dress”. The oxymoronic trend has evolved into not only giving the illusion of the wearer’s nudity, but also displaying their actual nudity. It ranges from flesh-coloured attire as worn by Monroe or Zendaya’s “wet” look at the 2021 Venice Film Festival to exhibiting parts or all of the wearer’s body as seen in the dresses worn by Bella Hadid at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and Cher at the Met Gala in 1974.
The wearer’s nakedness (be it explicit or implied) has naturally been the main factor responsible for turning heads. Just about every woman in the public eye has tried her hand at a naked dress to the point where online comments sections are abound with remarks along varying degrees of “please put some clothes on”. Regardless of how one feels about the aesthetics of the trend, I argue that the degree of desensitisation that this trend has brought to feminine bodies is perhaps exactly the point.
We live in a world where many have flocked time and again to view nude pictures and videos of women that have been leaked without their consent or knowledge, and hence it isn’t fair to dismiss the naked dress trend as tacky altogether. This can be exhibited in a popular quote by John Berger, “You paint a woman naked because you enjoy looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you call the painting ‘Vanity’, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure”. Naked dresses are made for women to wear, and we enjoy looking at the attractive bodies being put on display for our viewership. But only up to a point. Once we see more and more people getting comfortable, or desensitised, to putting their bodies on display at highly publicised events and watching others do so, we decide we have had enough and enforce a line. Perhaps, once more and more people begin doing this, it begins more than another controversial trend. Perhaps, it becomes a political statement, one that makes us uncomfortable.
Rose McGowan graced the red carpet of the VMAs in 1998 clad in a barely-there dress that was created from one meshy rectangular piece of iridescent beaded fabric held together at the back by a few beaded strands. A black thong was the only piece of undergarment she wore, one that the dress exposed and complimented. Years later, McGowan would become one of the first women to expose Harvey Weinstein’s gross abundance of sexual misconduct and reveal that she was predictably slut-shamed for wearing the translucent dress, one she intentionally chose for her first red carpet appearance since her sexual assault in 1997. This was a moment of her willingly displaying the body that is very much her own after a traumatic experience that can rob one’s agency and make survivors feel powerless. According to Maja Hanson, the designer responsible for the dress, McGowan may well have been the first person to take such a dress from the runway to the red carpet. While her brand was known for making such dresses and encouraging women to demonstrate ownership over their bodies, she did not at the time realise that her design would be a part of such a significant narrative.
Regarding this idea of ownership and the correlation between exhibition and agency, I argue that the naked dress’s transparent or translucent nature highlights the wearer’s form as it is rather than manipulating it to look like something it isn’t, which is subversive given the ever-changing, cyclical body standards of women (the heroin chic of the 1990s-2000s, the slim-thick bodies in the 2010s and now back to a traditionally “toned” look in the 2020s). The naked dress ensures that the wearer’s unique body is the one that is en vogue rather than forcing them to ascribe to a certain standard.
Obviously, this argument would not hold much weight if this trend was frequented only by those with conventionally attractive and desirable bodies, and indeed such people are the ones who receive the most coverage. The naked dress as a political statement becomes all the more powerful when worn by those who have been marginalised and/or deemed conventionally “unattractive”. Another infamous political statement that took the form of a naked dress has been in the form of Halle Berry’s appearance, and later her historic victory, at the 2002 Academy Awards. Her skirt consisted of a lustrous deep red fabric while the upper half of her dress was a sleeveless floral red mesh. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell details in her book “Skirts” the silent statement that Berry made especially after being the first woman of colour to win the award for Best Actress, “it suddenly seemed fitting that she had proudly displayed her skin on a red carpet that has been far from welcoming to black women”. Choosing to display your body is undeniably an act of agency for those who have been robbed of it. One may say that it is something akin to a celebration and solidification of your existence, one that the onlooker can not deny.
In the same book, Chrisman-Campbell cites former Victoria’s Secret Angel Winnie Harlow and her having adorned herself in a naked dress several times. Harlow is another figure that made history as the first Victoria’s Secret (not that the company is exactly a beacon of inclusivity, mind you) model with vitiligo, and “by baring her skin, she challenges expectations about beauty, race and the female body and present herself as a work of art, knowing it will make some people uncomfortable regardless of what she’s wearing”.
Plus size models Paloma Elsesser and Alva Claire further add to this challenge, as do trans and genderqueer celebrities like Hunter Schafer and Emma Corrin. The modelling world is one that has actively excluded and abused those who are in bigger bodies and those that do not fit the cisheteronormative standard (Victoria’s Secret is no angel in that regard), and here they stand as one of several influential people who get paid to do the same things that such companies once made sure they couldn’t.
The barely-there dress does not need to take up space or be physically present; it exposes the wearer’s authentic body as well as our biases. It is loud and it doesn’t lie. And it won’t be curtains for the naked dress anytime soon.
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