It takes guts to step outside your comfort zone, much less onto a camera-crazed red carpet, wearing little more than a sheer piece of fabric or hole-riddled chainmail. And yet, naked dresses have appeared at award shows, premieres, and the like for nearly a century, popping up during pivotal points in history — think the sex-positive ‘60s and early ‘70s, as well as the ‘90s when boundary-pushing was all the rage — before going dormant for the past decade or two. Today, with vaccines being more available, quarantines (hopefully) in the past, and the term “hot vax summer” leading the vernacular pack, we’re seeing yet another spike in demand for the barely-there frocks made famous by Sarah Jessica Parker, Cher, Rihanna, and Madonna.
According to global fashion shopping platform Lyst, the first signs of a naked dress resurgence in 2021 arrived in March, when Dua Lipa appeared at the 2021 Grammys wearing a custom Versace chainmail dress that looked like a metallic second skin embellished with colourful butterflies. Following her debut of the Cher-inspired look, search for chain dresses skyrocketed 18% in a matter of hours. Interest in “embellished” and “bejewelled” dresses rose by 15%.
By the time summer had rolled around, along with it, more lax attitudes about social distancing, there was no room for doubts about the return of the naked dress. It was a dominant red carpet staple — see: Doja Cat at the iHeartRadio Awards, Chloe Bailey at the BET Awards, and Megan Fox at the Billboard Music Awards. Cardi B even announced her second pregnancy by taking to the stage in a bedazzled bodysuit featuring a mesh cut-out around her belly.
But barely-there dresses aren’t just for celebrities attending industry events. In the month of June alone, Lyst reported a 45% increase in searches for “naked dresses” and “see-through dresses,” while “mini sheer dresses” and “cut-out dresses” saw page views increase by 21% and 38%, respectively. Leading the charge are brands like Mirror Palais, Poster Girl, and Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS, all of which have body-mirroring dresses that are currently going viral on TikTok.
In anticipation for the summer of naked dresses, we first got to know their past.
According to Kimberly Chrisman Campbell — a fashion historian and the author of Worn on This Day: The Clothes That Made History and the forthcoming Skirts, a history of the garment — the term “naked dress” didn’t arise until Sarah Jessica Parker wore a DKNY slip dress in a shade so close to her skin tone she appeared almost naked while attending the 1997 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. She made more waves when she wore the same dress on the first season of Sex and the City, most memorably on her first date with Mr. Big.
Though the dress dates back well before Bradshaw set Manolos down on the cobblestone streets of the West Village. “It's something that we’ve seen in Hollywood movies and nightclub and burlesque performances since the early 20th century,” Campbell tells Refinery29. These dress styles were referred to as "illusion dresses," because they gave off the impression that the wearer was nude.
According to Campbell, the person responsible for bringing the style out of the clubs and into the mainstream was Marilyn Monroe, who wore a beaded, sheer Jean Louis gown to the party where she famously sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in 1962. “She was really the first person to wear that kind of dress in a non-performance context, wearing it as an evening gown as opposed to a stage or film costume,” Campbell says.
Later, Elizabeth Taylor became known for her glitzy get-ups that more often than not left little to the imagination. At the 1969 Academy Awards, Barbara Streisand wore black, sequin bell-bottoms by Arnold Scaasi that were almost completely sheer. Throughout the ‘70s, Cher debuted a bevy of skimpy, rhinestone Bob Mackie ensembles on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and later on her solo show, Cher.
Not unlike today’s post-lockdown landscape, the ‘60s and ‘70s were a time defined by freedom and rebellion — the liberty to do what you wanted, go where you wanted, and wear what you wanted, no matter how see-through or skimpy. Celebrities were straying from the norm, wearing fashion that shocked and disrupted, rather than playing by the rules. The result was a spike in fleshy dress sightings.
The trend quieted until the ‘90s, when the fashion world embraced minimalism and unapologetic sexuality (read: the Calvin Klein ads that graced the sides of city buses). Supermodel Kate Moss caused a stir when she wore a graphite-coloured slip dress sans bra to an Elite Model Agency party in London circa 1993. Unlike those before her, though, Moss’s take — a very simple alternative to the hip-hugging, crystal-embellished naked dresses of yore — portrayed a different kind of sex appeal than what was popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her dress was more slinky and spare. More naked, if you will.
“Kate Moss was very famous for being flat-chested, but [that dress proved in a way that] she could be flat-chested and sexy,” says Campbell, who believes the naked dress trend isn’t necessarily about a dress at all, but rather the body the silhouette was designed to show off. “It was a new interpretation of sexiness.”
It was Moss, with her boy brief underwear and loose-fitting slip, that inspired a new kind of naked dress, one that wasn’t limited to a single definition of desirability. “It taught society something about what is considered ‘revealing’ and what is considered ‘attractive,’” says Campbell. As time went on, and the way society defines attractiveness evolved, so, too, did the naked dress.
In 2014, CFDA Fashion Icon Award recipient Rihanna walked the event’s red carpet in a Swarovski-crystal naked dress, designed by Adam Selman, that showed off her curves (and, well, everything — the dress was completely sheer). One year later, J.Lo (whose naked-like jungle dress from the 2000 Grammys will never not live rent free in our minds), Kim Kardashian, and Beyoncé all went nude-adjacent to the 2015 Met Gala.
Naked dresses have been a staple of red carpets since, with regular appearances by noted daring dressers like the Kardashian-Jenners and Lady Gaga, but none have sparked the kind of reaction that Rihanna’s Adam Selman look, or Beyoncé’s Met Gala dress for that matter, did. In 2021, however, after a year defined by sweatsuits and house slippers, the naked dress is back with a vengeance, ready to adorn the likes of everyone who has spent 365-plus days in solitude. We’re feeling braver and bolder, lucky to have bodies, and to once again go to places where they’ll attract the notice of others.
“They're a very look-at-me type of clothing, which I think will probably be the look this summer,” Campbell says of the dresses. “People want to be out, to be the centre of attention and go off a little, because we've all been isolated indoors.” And what better way to do so than in a dress known for its ability to make a statement?
That appears to be the consensus on social media. On Instagram, naked dresses of all hues, silhouettes, and level of nudity are plentiful, with style stars like Milan Wheaton, Ireanna Bradshaw, Sandra Heinrich Sauceda, and more all donning their pared-down frocks. Making the post-pandemic naked dress comeback all the better is the wider variety of bodies that might now be included in this once size-exclusive phenomenon. “This time around, I predict that this trend will be a lot more diverse in terms of body types that participate in it,” Campbell says. “I think we'll see people that, 20 years ago, maybe wouldn't have felt comfortable wearing completely sheer and body-baring clothing, [fully] embracing the naked dress.”
In 2021, the naked dress is more of a battle cry than a body-con casing. They’re a tool to show off who you are and what you’ve got.