In a year when many of us have been wearing little but loungewear, swaddling our bodies in soft rolls of cotton or, if we’re lucky, cashmere, the trend for cut-outs feels like a bolt from the blue. If 2020 has been the year of “soft-talgia” – velour tracksuits standing in for style – then cut-outs could be read as a high-fashion riposte.
In recent collections, slices, squares and gaping holes have been crafted into clothes. Cut-outs add a sense of occasion: when Alexa Chung wanted something that was “spectacular and OTT for what was essentially a Zoom meeting” (The Fashion Awards), she went for a Christopher Kane frock with the sides carved out. On one of the January covers of Vogue, Kate Moss – no stranger to the cut-out look – has been shot wearing a pair of Versace trousers with an artful cut-out on the hip. Emma Corrin was all set to give cut-outs the royal seal of approval by wearing a holey design by Nensi Dojaka to promote The Crown, had the pandemic not put paid to that.
While some of these cut-out designs will have been sketched long before the name Patrick Vallance entered our daily lexicon, others can be read as either a subconscious or deliberate response to a year in which trackie bottoms have reigned supreme.
Showing skin has long been a red carpet power move. See: Angelina Jolie’s leg at the 2012 Oscars, which still has its own Twitter account. But cut-outs, more than plunging necklines or thigh-high slits, are a way to really frame parts of the body and draw attention to them.
In many ways cut-outs feel like a highbrow take on the naked trend which has been so pervasive in recent years, with sheer frocks and bodycon in muted tones. They perform a sort of peepshow; windows onto the body. It’s incredible what a missing piece of fabric or – reframe that – an artfully placed part of the body can be used to communicate.
Cut-outs are “playing with that issue of hiding and revealing," Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, tells Refinery29. "Concealing … [is] playing – like a fig leaf it’s ambivalent, it calls attention to what it’s supposed to hide.”
“From a designer’s perspective when you have a cut-out you really have the chance to draw attention to a particular body part,” says Michaela Stark, whose work was worn by Beyoncé in the "Apeshit" video and who uses cut-outs unexpectedly and cleverly (more on this later).
While cut-outs might traditionally be thought of as sexy with a capital S, in recent seasons many have been embracing cut-outs that seem almost defiantly the opposite; PG-rated and innocent. At Christopher Kane triangular AW20 cut-outs made up part of the geometric pattern of a dress more Pythagoras than Paphian. London designer Ashley Williams’ AW20 collection includes a dress with a big egg-shaped hole missing from the middle, the perfect frame for one of the body’s most lustless bits: the belly button. Although, as Steele points out, the links to the placenta make it not as far removed from the erotic as you might think.
For many others cut-outs have been a way to put a more unexpected, “wonky sexy” or – dare I say it – empowered spin on designs without necessarily the emphasis on the male gaze; from Dion Lee’s taut leather cut-out dresses shaped like the leaves of a monstera plant to Maximilian Davis’ SS21 collection – a statement “that Black elegance exists” – with its slashed dresses and cut-out-tailored tops.
The British-Indian designer Supriya Lele created a collection for SS21 that was a direct response to a year spent in trackie bottoms. As the LVMH Prize-winner recently told Vogue: “I like to show sexual confidence in the clothing and I wanted to make more of a statement of that this season because I felt so tired of wearing joggers for months.” She singles out parts of the body with a surgeon’s precision: a slice of hip here, a slither of torso there.
Bella Hadid-approved designer Nensi Dojaka’s lingerie-inspired designs are often more negative-space than anything else; architectural and strange. Drawing on fashion’s deconstructivist tendencies, Dojaka seems to be playing with the very fabric of what makes a top a top, a dress a dress, and in the process of unpicking and putting back together, she leaves plenty out, bringing focus to parts of the body that perhaps aren’t usually thought of as erogenous.
Wonky cut-outs can be just as potent as those that more strictly adhere to what we traditionally think of as sexy. While the more obviously sexy cut-out might be one that falls squarely over a traditional erogenous zone, Valerie Steele thinks that it almost doesn’t matter where a cut-out falls on the body because “skin implies nakedness and therefore, as Barthes said, eroticism is where the garment gapes, where suddenly you’re showing a flash of skin… If you cover it up and you show a piece of skin then that’s an exciting revelation.”
By bringing focus to the – often female – body, cut-outs ask questions and speak volumes about where we’re at in terms of acceptance of different shapes and sizes in fashion and beyond. It is, generally, much more “acceptable” to wear a midriff-baring dress if your body fits within the narrow limits laid out by society.
Stark is plus-size and creates cut-out-saturated work for herself that could be read as what happens when you take wonky, sexualised cut-outs to their extreme. When she was previously working on “smaller" girls, she says, "I was trying to figure out how to make my designs more sexy and classically beautiful". A “cutaway would be something that would actually turn the outfit into something more subtle and sexy"; a peekaboo moment. When she turned her focus on herself, it wasn’t not about being sexy but it was also about emphasising “all the parts of my body that I was insecure about.”
Her lingerie designs bind and constrict and surreally sculpt the body. They “make you look at the part that’s the cut-out so the cut-out is so in your face and your eyes are so drawn to it – it makes it more unapologetic.” Through her work she has come to a different understanding of her own body: “I think that when I started I always knew that it was about body acceptance for myself,” she says, “and it has really helped me and the way that I view myself. Now my body is something different – it’s almost like a tool now. When I see fat I know how to make it look beautiful.”
While many of the current cut-out designs in high fashion are shown most routinely on models who fit within the limited ideals of a “model-body-shape”, there are exceptions. A cut-out-rich SS21 collection from Berlin design duo Ottolinger was worn by a cast of models of different body types to stress the universality of their work, and zany designer Collina Strada recently chose plus-size model Alva Claire for a pink dress with cutaways across different stretches of the tummy. Plus, as Stark points out, fast fashion brands like Fashion Nova, for all their sins, “actually know how to dress women amazingly and are doing cut-outs for plus-size women a lot.”
Stark thinks that change is also coming via women themselves: “Plus-size women are actually starting to put cut-outs in their clothes, maybe even doing DIY cut-outs… They know how to photograph themselves, they know how to work it and are leading by example and the brands are scrambling behind.” It is, she says, “one of those bubbling up effects where plus-size women are taking ownership over their bodies and saying if fashion brands don’t know how to dress me, I know how to dress me.”