Naked Dressing: Whose Pleasure Is It For Anyway?

By Vanessa Friedman
A model presents a look at the Collina Strada fashion show in New York, September 9, 2022. Photo / Dolly Faibyshev, The New York Times

The new “nudity” provides a form of self-pleasure and power for all body types.

Ah, the flesh. It has been everywhere in fashionland: sideboob, underboob, butt cheek, butt cleft, belly button, nipples, hip bones, upper ribs, the whole sweep of the back from skull through spine — a veritable bounty

When garments began to disappear a year ago, there was a lot of theorising about post-pandemic freedom and how the spate of public nakedness was simply an expression of pent-up desire for social contact and the breeze on our skin. It seems increasingly clear, however, that this kind of physical reveal — the let-it-all-hang-out, uncontained, sheer corporeality of it all — is the rawest expression of a new conversation taking place around dress and the body.

There were 333 per cent more low-waist skirts and 78 per cent more low-waist pants on the spring 2023 runways than there were during the same season a year ago (which was itself heralded as the barest in recent memory), with 15 per cent more visible lingerie and 10 per cent more transparent clothing, according to Alexandra Van Houtte, founder of Tagwalk, a search engine for fashion.

Even in an industry that has long fetishised provocation, where undressing is part of the historical cycle of all dressing, those are striking numbers.

Some of it was familiar: corsetry and peekaboo bandage wraps. Some of it was related to the Y2K revival sweeping through TikTok, with its cropped tops and low-slung jeans. Some of it was — hey, it’s summer. But most of it seemed a phenomenon all its own.

More than an aesthetic, said Valerie Steele, director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, it may be “ideological.”

Five years after the explosive #MeToo moment, in the twilight of Roe, the subject of women’s bodies, how they are seen — and who gets to decide exactly how much of them is seen — has ever more political potency.

The right to self-exposure

“There is a long history of women reclaiming their own sexuality through sexy clothes,” said Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, author of Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism and a history professor at Case Western Reserve University. “Going back to the 1920s, when flappers exposed their legs. This is somewhat different, though.”

It’s not an invitation. Old adjectives like “sensual” and “seductive” and “romantic” do not apply. It is not, as Sarah Burton said before her Alexander McQueen show in London this month, about “a male gaze.”

Nor, said Rabinovitch-Fox, is it “about the feminine body necessarily. It’s just about the body. It’s about, ‘I have the right to expose myself the way I want to.’”

Indeed, the idea of bodily “rights” comes up again and again when designers talk about the new naked.

At Prabal Gurung, Ella Emhoff, stepdaughter of Vice President Kamala Harris, walked the runway in a black miniskirt that looked more like a hip-wrapper and what looked like a mint green chiffon scarf knotted into a rosette at the neck, the two ends dangling down to veil each breast and then billow out behind — at least in theory. In practice, one breast was left en plein air. Emhoff didn’t blink. Nor did she adjust her “shirt.”

According to Zoe Latta, a founder of Eckhaus Latta, when a model tried on an entirely transparent mesh dress she was scheduled to wear in the show, it was her idea not to wear any underwear beneath. Maybe, said Mike Eckhaus, a co-founder of the label, that was because “the way we play with sex appeal is not trying to be body-enhancing. It’s about being in control of your identity.”

Bella Hadid walks the runway during the Stella McCartney Womenswear Spring/Summer 2023 show as part of Paris Fashion Week. Photo / Getty Images
Bella Hadid walks the runway during the Stella McCartney Womenswear Spring/Summer 2023 show as part of Paris Fashion Week. Photo / Getty Images

The designers leading the charge are generally young and independent and do not subscribe to old orthodoxies about the system. (They are also largely American.) They talk about community and eschew traditional runway models for their friend groups, whose bodies do not conform to any particular standard of age or measurement or even gender. Their corporeality is more in the mode of Lucien Freud than Jessica Rabbit.

Fashion is often pitched as a tool for transformation, for moulding and reshaping flesh into a new form that implies the original is not quite up to par. And, at the same time, it is offered as a kind of armour, to convey strength and confidence through protective cover: giant shoulders, oversize jackets, trousers, maxi-skirts and sometimes even metallic breastplates.

The new naked dressing subverts both shibboleths, suggesting that exposure equates not to vulnerability but to strength, and that the body just as it is is just fine. By revealing what Steele calls “unfamiliar skin” or “moving skin” — folds and pooches and body parts not traditionally considered offered for public consumption — these clothes startle viewers out of their comfort zones and challenge received convention. They are entirely unabashed.

Last year, New York designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh was on vacation in Greece and started playing around with wearing sheer sarongs not just on the beach but in town so that they revealed not her bathing suits but her actual underpants.

“I would never show my nipples in the past,” she said. “I used to be much more insecure about myself, even the shape of my legs. But now I feel very chill wearing panties and something sheer.” So she put that idea into her collection, which featured old textiles used in lieu of formal garments, including a bra made from two doilies.

Whose pleasure is it anyway?

“There have been a lot of designers throughout history interested in alteration and dressing up the blank person,” Latta said. “Using clothes to make the body look a certain way for the pleasure of others.”

The point of the new nakedness, she said, is not to provide that sort of viewing pleasure but rather a form of self-pleasure.

It’s the ultimate anti-Victoria’s Secret Angel moment: the obverse of clothes that demand you starve yourself or work yourself out to exhaustion or otherwise obscure the truth of yourself to fit into someone else’s fantasy. (Of course, even Victoria’s Secret is not that Victoria’s Secret any more, having traded the Angels for inclusivity — and less campy, role-playing underwear.)

That’s what Hillary Taymour of Collina Strada said when she talked about a ballgown in her collection with a sweeping Cinderella skirt — and a top that appeared to be suspended not from spaghetti straps but from the model’s nipples so it began at the breasts rather than hiding them — and which she created with the red carpet in mind.

These are clothes for someone who is happy to give the middle finger to the viewing world, she said; “for making a moment that says, ‘This is about me.’”

Rose McGowan in the backless mesh dress she wore to the VMA Awards in 1998. Photo / Getty Images
Rose McGowan in the backless mesh dress she wore to the VMA Awards in 1998. Photo / Getty Images

It reminded her, Taymour said, of Rose McGowan’s “naked dress,” the backless crystal mesh gown with only strings covering her behind that McGowan wore to the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards with only a leopard print thong beneath. She later revealed that her attire was meant as a political statement, a way of reclaiming her body. McGowan has accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her in 1997, and the VMAs were the first public appearance she made after the alleged assault, which ultimately formed part of the nexus of #MeToo. And thus did that dress become a part of how we got to here: self-determination writ in skin.

“Owning up to who you are and ‘not caring’ has really been a predominant theme and trend,” said Van Houtte of Tagwalk.

That sounds like a moment of true liberation, both physical and psychological, except that, as Steele of FIT points out, everyone is always “both subject and object, and part of being an embodied person is you can never control how people think about you.”

She, for one, is not entirely convinced that the move to take back the body will last. Historically, as with most things fashion, there is for every action an equal and opposite reaction. The 1920s led to the structure and shoulder pads of World War II; the 1960s to the power dressing of the 1980s.

“Throughout history,” Steele said, “there is no culture that is 100 per cent undressed or unfashioned. Even on a nudist beach, people wear sunglasses and sunscreen. The anthropological literature is full of tribes that wear beads and face paint even if they wear no clothes.”

Even now, she said, “we’re nowhere near as naked as we could be.” In its own way, statement (un)dressing has you covered.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Vanessa Friedman

Photographs by: Dolly Faibyshev


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