On the same day Florence Pugh wore the see-through Barbiecore pink Valentino dress to the heritage brand’s couture show in Rome this summer, her breasts showing through the diaphanous layers of tulle, Elon Musk terminated his deal to buy Twitter, abortion rights activists prepared to march on the White House, and the BA.5 subvariant was making its way across the world.
You wouldn’t have known it from our feeds: Gross, misogynistic commentary about the Don't Worry Darling star’s nipples dominated our timelines. This reaction wasn’t surprising; even Pugh anticipated the backlash, saying in an Instagram post two days later: “I knew when I wore that incredible Valentino dress that there was no way there wouldn’t be a commentary on it,” she wrote. “What’s been interesting to watch and witness is just how easy it is for men to totally destroy a woman’s body, publicly, proudly, for everyone to see.”
Because, as Pugh well understood when she wore that exquisite look in a world where women’s bodies are hypersexualized and hyperpoliced and increasingly not our own, people were always going to have something negative to say.
The fashion industry may have freed the nipple a long time ago with entirely see-through looks on the runway as common as florals for spring, but the visceral response to Pugh’s barely bare chest is the latest example that society is still not ready to embrace breasts as simply anatomy.
“Women's bodies are just continuously being sexualized. Even with breastfeeding, even the act of feeding your child, someone might potentially be looking at your nipple. It's almost a crime [to show breasts in public],” says Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a London-based fashion psychologist and author of Big Dress Energy. “Florence knew this was going to cause controversy… and the fact that she had to [respond to] what was said about it… shows as much as we think we are liberated, we are still very much bound by restrictive social norms.”
Off the runway at least. Typically, “Fashion lives in a fantasy zone” above such social codes and criticism, says Ilya Parkins (PhD), associate professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Breasts and bodies, albeit a certain type — sorry for the rest of us with a cup size bigger than a B, or bodies larger than a size 0 — are treated with neutrality if not celebrated.
Look at fall 2022’s nearly naked offerings. Like the sheer tops at Loewe or the trompe l’oeil Gaultier homage at Y/Project or the optical illusion dress at Balmain. If they didn’t showcase entirely nipple-baring looks, designers found a sense of joy and delight in the body and the breast: from the surrealism of Schiaparelli’s gold-cone chest pieces and pointed, pencil-shaving-esque blazers to Marc Jacobs’ nipple-hugging triangle bras tops and Prada’s breast-enhancing polo shirts and sweaters.
This celebration and liberation of the breasts has trickled into recent pop culture. See: Beyoncé’s Schiaparelli outfits and nipple tassels and star pasties in her Renaissance album art, Kylie Jenner’s "free the nipple" bikini and Billboard Music Awards look, and Bella Thorne's Morbius red carpet dress. It has impacted our lives as well: Wireless bra sales are down as women are ditching the constricting undergarment in favor of comfort that we’ve come to appreciate over the last few years.
Forbes-Bell sees this as the next phase of our casual post-pandemic world: “Barely there clothing is almost a continuation of the kind of comfort-dressing trend. Not only seeing your clothes as being something that's very practical, but something that's an extension of yourself, and utilizing your clothes as a way to express yourself and your identity.”
And your politics.
The fact that the reaction to Pugh’s dress happened against the backdrop of the overturning of Roe v. Wade is not insignificant. “These things are connected and characterized by a deep sense of the necessity to control women's bodies,” says Dr. Parkins. “We're in the beginning of a period of backlash against women being loud and taking up space.” In that case then, naked dressing can be seen as an act of protest, a way of clinging to control and autonomy when we’re being stripped of it by the government. “It has reignited those conversations about what it is to be a woman and to have ownership and to take up space,” adds Forbes-Bell. “And how you want to translate that. And I think people are translating that through their clothes.”
In the real world away from the fantasy of the runway, there are of course limits to how much we may feel comfortable using fashion as a political weapon. Like many, I’m furious about the erosion of my bodily rights, but while wearing a see-through top and no bra to walk my dog or having a picnic in the park topless will no doubt get a response, it probably won’t make the statement I’m hoping it will. (I’d be much better off protesting, voting, donating money to abortion funds, or calling my district attorney.) Then there is the fact that Pugh is operating within the privilege of her fame but also her cis whiteness; these same actions would likely have very different consequences for others, particularly women of color.
“Conventional understandings of gender are completely wrapped up in this kind of hysteria about women's public nudity,” adds Dr. Parkins. “Until we step away from that, which requires a dismantling of gender altogether, it will continue to be roped into that cycle.”
And that cycle will only be broken when we allow bodies to just be bodies, vessels that carry us through the world that we can adorn in whatever ways we see fit. It’s “moving away from positivity and more to just neutrality and just thinking of your body as just that in itself,” says Forbes-Bell.
Nipples and all.