It takes courage to step out of your comfort zone and onto a red carpet crazed with cameras, even if you are wearing nothing but a thin piece of fabric or a hole-ridden chainmail. Naked dresses have been seen at premieres, award shows and other events for almost a century. They were present during key historical moments, such as the sex-positive 1960s and early 1970s. With vaccines readily available in the U.S., the possibility of quarantines in the future, and the “hot vax season” being a popular term, we are seeing a new surge in demand for the barely there frocks that were made famous by Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cher, Rihanna and Cher.
Lyst, a global fashion shopping platform, says that Dua Lipa wore a Versace custom Versace chainmail Versace dress that looked like a second skin, with colorful butterflies. In just a few hours, the demand for chain dresses soared 18% after her Cher-inspired debut. 15% more people are interested in “embellished”, and “bejewelled” dresses.
The return of the naked gown was inevitable by the end of summer. With it came more relaxed attitudes towards social distancing. It was a staple red carpet look – check out Doja Cat at iHeartRadio Awards, Chloe Bailey and Megan Fox at Billboard Music Awards. Cardi B announced her second pregnancy on the red carpet in a dazzling bodysuit with a mesh cut around her stomach.
These barely-there gowns aren’t only for celebs attending industry events. Lyst reported that there was a 45% rise in searches for “naked” and “see through” dresses. Meanwhile, page views of “mini sheer dresses and cut-out dresses” increased by 21%, 38% and 38% respectively. Brands like Mirror Palais and Poster Girl are leading the charge, while Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS has body-mirroring designs that are currently viral on TikTok.
Kimberly Chrisman Campbell, a fashion historian and author of Worn on This Day and Skirts: A History of the Garment and Fashion History of the Clothes that Made History, says that the term “naked gown” was not invented until Sarah Jessica Parker wore DKNY slip dresses in a color so similar to her skin to almost appear naked at the 1997 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. The same dress was worn by her on the first Sex and the City season, and most notably on her first date with Mr. Big.
Although the dress was made in the West Village, it dates back to before Bradshaw put Manolos on the cobblestone streets. Campbell tells us that the dress is something Campbell has seen in Hollywood movies, nightclubs and burlesque performances ever since the beginning of 20th century. These dresses were called “illusion gowns” because they gave the impression that the wearer is nude.
Campbell claims that Marilyn Monroe was the one who brought the style from the clubs to the mainstream. She wore a Jean Louis beaded and sheer Jean Louis gown to the party, where she sang “Happy Birthday” in 1962 to President John F. Kennedy. Campbell claims that she was the first to wear this dress in an informal setting, as an evening gown rather than a film or stage costume.
Elizabeth Taylor was later known for her glamorous looks that left little to imagination. Barbara Streisand wore almost entirely sheer black sequin bell bottoms by Arnold Scaasi to the 1969 Academy Awards. Cher wore a variety of skimpy Bob Mackie outfits throughout the 1970s. Cher Comedy Hour, and later her solo show Cher.
The ’60s and the ’70s were not unlike the post-lockdown world. They were a time of freedom and rebellion. You could do whatever you wanted and go wherever you wanted. Celebrities were breaking the rules by wearing unconventional fashion, and not sticking to the rules. There was an increase in fleshy dresses.
This trend remained quiet until the 1990s when minimalism and unapologetic homosexuality were embraced by the fashion industry (read: Calvin Klein ads that graced city buses). Kate Moss, a supermodel, caused quite a stir by wearing a graphite slip dress without bra to an Elite Model Agency party held in London in 1993. Moss’s version, which was a more simple option to the glamorous, neck-hugging, glam-embellished, naked dresses of the past, was a refreshing take on sex appeal. Her dress was more simple and slinky. If you like, more naked.
Campbell believes that the naked dress trend doesn’t just refer to a dress, but the silhouette it was meant to highlight. It was a new definition of sexiness.
Moss’ boy-short underwear and loose-fitting slip inspired a new type of naked dress that was not limited to one definition of desireability. Campbell says that it taught society a lot about what is considered attractive and what is revealing. The naked dress evolved with society’s definition of attractiveness.
Rihanna, a 2014 CFDA Fashion Icon Award winner, walked the red carpet wearing a Swarovski crystal-crystal nude dress designed by Adam Selman that showcased her curves. J.Lo, Kim Kardashian and Beyonce, all nude-adjacent to 2015 Met Gala a year later.
Since then, naked dresses have been a regular feature on red carpets, with frequent appearances by daring dressers such as the Kardashian-Jenners or Lady Gaga. However, none of these looks have provoked the same reaction as Rihanna’s Adam Selman look or Beyonce’s Met Gala gown. After a year of wearing sweatsuits and house slippers for most of the past year, the naked gown is back in 2021. We feel braver, bolder, and more fortunate to have bodies. They are also able to go back to places that will attract attention.
Campbell describes the dresses as “very look-at me type of clothing,” Campbell said. People want to stand out and make a statement.
This seems to be the social media consensus. Instagram is filled with naked dresses in all colors, silhouettes and levels of nudity. Style stars such as Milan Wheaton and Ireanna Bradshaw are seen wearing pared down frocks. The wider range of sizes that may now be included in this once-exclusive post-pandemic trend makes the naked dress even more popular. Campbell states that “This trend will be more diverse this time around in terms of the body types that participate.” “I believe we’ll see people who, 20 years ago wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing fully sheer, body-baring clothes, [fully] accepting the naked dress.”
The naked dress will be more of a battle cry in 2021 than a body-con case. They are a way to showcase who you are and what your capabilities are.