The best way to get noticed in 2022 was to wear an invisible dress. From Kim Kardashian in a skin-tone sheath previously worn by Marilyn Monroe to Florence Pugh in one-ply-tissue-weight Valentino pink, “naked glamour” was the look that defined 2022.
After a decade of demure trends, when high necklines and puffed sleeves ruled the catwalk and loose midi dresses replaced pencil skirts as power dressing in the office, this year put the body back in the spotlight.
Near-naked dressing is back, but the new look is – in the vernacular of Instagram – heavily filtered. Long but ultra-sheer gowns that showcase the body while preserving an air of mystery have replaced short skirts and plunging necklines.
The patron saint of naked glamour is Marilyn Monroe. In 1960, in an interview with Marie Claire, Monroe recalled how when a previous reporter had asked her what she wore in bed, “I said, ‘Chanel No 5’, because it’s the truth … and yet, I don’t want to say ‘nude’.” From that moment on, nudity – or the suggestion of it – was key to her brand. In May this year, Kim Kardashian made headlines at the Met Gala by wearing the dress Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to the the US president, John F Kennedy, 60 years earlier. In 1962, the shock value of the dress lay in its transparency, and because Monroe’s wardrobe choice was interpreted as suggestive of an intimate relationship with the president. In 2022, the shock value lay in Kardashian revealing she had lost 16lbs to fit into the dress, by not eating solid food for three weeks.
The most talked about red carpet dresses of the year, the most in-vogue wedding dress of the year and the catwalk moment that went viral from Paris fashion week all involved naked dresses. Valentino’s haute couture show in July commandeered Rome’s Spanish Steps as a catwalk, but it was the front-row look worn by Pugh, braless in a sheer fuchsia halterneck gown, that made headlines. The actor’s Don’t Worry Darling director, Olivia Wilde, picked up the “free the nipple” baton at the Academy Museum gala three months later, in a silver Alexandre Vauthier sheath so fine that what lay beneath – just a pair of shoulder pads – was clearly visible.
The viral moment of the most recent catwalk season came at Coperni’s Paris fashion week show, when model Bella Hadid stood in her knickers while a dress was sprayed on to her skin. Fabrican is a liquid blend of natural and synthetic fibres applied by aerosol, which on contact with the surface of the body becomes a non-woven fabric. After 10 minutes, Hadid was wearing a dress solid enough that a technician could add a slit in the hem and fold down the neckline to drape around her shoulders, but it remained so X-ray sheer that, like Monroe’s rhinestone-studded crystals, it read as naked. The clip has been viewed over a million times on TikTok.
There is more to the construction of a successful naked dress than meets the eye. The dress worn by Monroe and Kardashian is said to be embellished with 6,000 tiny rhinestones, each stitched by hand. Monroe paid $1,440 – a substantial price tag in 1962 – for the dress, which was designed by Bob Mackie, then a young apprentice for the French designer Jean Louis. The gown set a record for a dress at auction, raising $1.2m in 1999. Seven years later it was sold again for $4.8m. “Nowadays everyone wears sheer dresses, but back then that was not the case,” said Kardashian. “In a sense, it’s the original naked dress. That’s why it was so shocking.” Mackie became the master of the naked dress, creating the transparent dress with strategically placed silver sequins and white feathers that Cher wore to the Met Gala in 1974.
But for all the technical virtuosity of its construction, it is the power to spotlight the body beneath that lends the naked dress its visceral power. It has become a cultural totem at a moment when women’s bodies have become a political battleground. This year, the US supreme court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, and the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, arrested by Iran’s morality police after being accused of wearing her hijab incorrectly, sparked widespread protests.
In 2022, female nudity is not mere titillation, it is a hotbed of cultural controversy. The naked dress trend also reflects a continued obsession with a narrowly defined “perfect” body shape. Kardashian’s weight loss was as compelling a storyline as the heritage of her dress. Much of the online criticism against Pugh’s sheer Valentino gown was directed not against her nudity, but against her temerity in being “comfortable with my small breasts … it aggravated [people] that I was comfortable,” the actor told Harper’s Bazaar. “It was just alarming, how perturbed they were. They were so angry that I was confident,” she added.
The fashion blogger Camille Charriere faced a backlash after posting photos of a see-through wedding dress, made from upcycled white lace by the British fashion designer Harris Reed and worn over a visible white thong, to her 1.3 million followers earlier this year. “I could never picture myself as a conventional bride … and had no desire to wear a traditional, virginal gown … I deeply resent the way our wardrobes are still being policed by society. We, collectively, should feel furious that women still have to endure this patriarchal nonsense,” she later wrote.