Naked flames: from Cher to Kate Moss and Florence Pugh, why sheer is one for the ages

Coined the ‘naked dress’ trend, sheer dressing is experiencing a rebirth, but much can be learned from the controversial reactions of yore

Florence Pugh at the Valentino Haute Couture autumn-winter 2022 fashion show in Rome

When Florence Pugh attended the Valentino Haute Couture show last summer in a hot pink sheer gown, she expected a pearl-clutching response, and she was right.

But what also followed was an influx of body-shamers and crude commentary, so much so that Pugh addressed it in an Instagram post shortly after: “It isn’t the first and it certainly won’t be the last time a woman will hear what’s wrong with her body by a crowd of many of you wanted to aggressively let me know [that] I should be embarrassed by being so ‘flat chested’. Thankfully I’ve come to terms with the intricacies of my body that make me, me.”

‘Thankfully I’ve come to terms with the intricacies of my body that make me, me,’ Florence Pugh said following the body-shaming comments she received after the Valentino Haute Couture show

Pugh’s diaphanous dress choice is underpinned by a broader trend sweeping across runway, red carpet, and street style circles this season; coined the ‘naked dress’ trend, it’s a buzzword that has received 8.6 million views on TikTok. And while it’s the type of fashion that’s ripping-up-the-rulebook and statement-making by nature, it’s also subject to much sensationalism and vitriol.

Its historical and pop culture references are plentiful: newspaper archives stretching back to 1913 show outrage at so-called X-ray skirts, with a New York Times article reporting that the Mayor of Portland, Oregon, ordered the arrest of every woman wearing the “objectionable gown”. And in RTÉ’s Century Ireland archives, a report from New York documents four women who were “surrounded by a group of angry men and women who felt the women were dressed indecently”.

Every decade will tell a similar story: Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ Jean Louis dress in 1962 is an iconic scandalised reference point (since worn by Kim Kardashian at last year’s Met Gala), as is Jane Birkin and Cher’s daring transparent dresses of the ‘70s.

Cher and Bob Mackie at the 1974 Met Gala

Cher’s 1974 Met Gala look – a crystal-beaded, feathered, illusive Bob Mackie gown – is arguably the most famous naked dress of all time, and a year later Cher appeared in the custom gown on the cover of Time magazine. “Some cities even banned [the magazine] from being sold,” Mackie told British Vogue in a 2017 interview. And a mere mention of ‘90s Kate Moss will surface her appearance at the 1993 Elite Look of the Year Contest.

Kate Moss wearing a diaphanous silver dress at the Elite Model Agency party for the Look of the Year Contest at the Hilton Hotel, London, September 1993

The trend’s rebirth today cut through this year’s Met Gala in particular: Rachel Brosnahan wore a black mesh gown with sequin adornments, while Billie Eilish’s black bustier minidress featured a full-length sheer overlay with lace detailing and matching opera gloves – just two of the countless sheer examples of the night.

A model walks the runway for the Bottega Veneta spring-summer 2023 show in Milan

It’s reflective of the trend’s renaissance on the runways too: from Erdem’s structured sheath dresses, to Prada’s underwear-as-outerwear appeal and Bottega Veneta’s bare it all floral appliqué slip dresses.

Notable too, was its popularity in this season’s menswear shows: the sans-top moment hit best on the runways of Maison Mihara Yasuhiro, Giorgio Armani, and AMI, while chain mail, gauge, and ribbed fabrications came from Hermès and Emporio Armani.

A model walks the runway at the Fendi spring-summer show in Milan

There is salience to exploring body form in fashion and its relationship with flared-up cultural pushback – and asking why that is. A sentiment best put by Pugh herself, in conversation with the New York Times: “Even though the dress was daring, it wasn’t in any way was basically this beautiful dress and this beautiful fabric, showing off whatever it was that I had underneath.”