Images courtesy of Michaela Stark, Karoline Vitto and Sinéad O'Dwyer. Collage by Douglas Greenwood. 

What does the cut-out trend mean for body inclusivity?

From Stella McCartney to Saint Laurent, Supriya Lele to Balmain, cut-outs are here to stay, but how can the trend become more inclusive of all bodies?

by Sophie Wilson
01 December 2021, 10:49am

Images courtesy of Michaela Stark, Karoline Vitto and Sinéad O'Dwyer. Collage by Douglas Greenwood. 

Bare shoulders, exposed hips, key-hole dresses… for SS22, we saw plenty of cut-outs. Revealing slithers of toned abs, angular collarbones and sculpted butts, the trend has been celebrated for bringing sexy back and ushering in a new era of ‘going out out’ dresses. On Instagram, its ubiquitous presence is spearheaded by It-girls Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Kendall Jenner and Dua Lipa who have helped propel the trend into the mainstream.

Cut-out slip dresses, bodysuits and halter tops have been peeping out from everywhere in recent months, but be it at Boohoo or Balmain, the trend has featured a marked lack of body diversity. While this is an industry-wide problem, the cut-out trend is particularly susceptible to excluding certain bodies. Unlike more straightforward garments, a standard sizing approach rarely cuts it. Get the proportions wrong, and the wrong parts of the body will be exposed. What’s more, you run the risk of material sagging in some areas, but being too tight in others. As cut-outs become more ambitious, delicate and experimental, it’s important to consider which body shapes designers have in mind when crafting them.

Plus-size models still only accounted for 1.81% of all castings in the Spring 2022 shows. When they did appear on the runway, it was rarely in revealing cut-out garments, reinforcing the idea that only certain bodies deserve to be put on show. At Stella McCartney, sporty cut-outs revealed athletic shoulders and abs while at Saint Laurent, slender waists and torsos peaked out from behind sexy slithers of velvet and chiffon. Supriya Lele showed ruched keyhole cut-outs with draped see-through pieces and KNWLS dressed models in criss-cross tops leaving shoulders, cleavage and midriffs on display. LVMH Prize winner Nensi Dojaka is best known for championing the trend with her lingerie-inspired mesh designs that incorporate barely-there straps crossing the upper body where fabric would usually be. The cult label has been a hit with celebs like Zendaya.

However, these brands have drawn some criticism for lack of size representation. While cut-out dresses have been hailed as the perfect post-lockdown party look, they’re also part of a wider trend of baring it all — think teeny tiny bralets and micro minis — which has grown alongside our all-pervasive Y2K nostalgia. These revealing garments are nearly always shown on sample size models. The return of low rise styles has caused a stir recently, after critics voiced fears that they signal a return to the fetishisation of size zero that was prevalent in the OG Y2K years. Indeed, there are some 00s aesthetics that should be left in the past.

Millennials on TikTok are discussing the impact that growing up in the 00s had on their mental health when toxic beauty standards were very much the norm. Thigh gap discourse has also returned to TikTok and while these discussions tend to be healthier than in the past, some images from the SS22 runway of skinny models in cut-out bodycons and tiny, low rise skirts would not look out of place on Tumblr-era thinspo blogs. When cut-outs are repeatedly worn by models of the same size, and particularly when they are placed in areas that reveal jutting hip and collarbones, they run the risk idolising a single body type that is not healthy or achievable for most. This trend is sometimes to the detriment of inclusivity and body positivity.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. A new wave of designers are using cut-outs to directly challenge body norms, drawing attention to curves rather than covering them. Karoline Vitto, Sinéad O’Dwyer and Michaela Stark are among the designers celebrating the parts of the body that women are told to hide. Karoline’s visually striking pieces “accentuate the curves and celebrate the folds”, offering a counterpoint to the image of cut-out fashion perpetuated in the mainstream while maintaining its sexy appeal with barely-there dresses, shoestring straps and peek-a-boo knitwear. “I see many people jumping into cut-out fashion as a trend and sometimes they do have the intention to work with bodies other than a size UK 6/8, but they simply have not taken the time to specialise in it and don’t realise that it requires different methods,” Karoline says.

“Whenever you add a cut-out into a garment, the whole fabric behaves differently, especially when working with jersey,” the designer continues. “However, cut-outs also mean that there is more give in the final piece, so technically it could fit more people. The problem with that is that, when done in a rush, you might end up with a piece that many people can ‘fit into’, but that is not necessarily well-fitted for any of them, with gaps and fabric twisting around their bodies.”

Sinéad O’Dwyer has a similar vision of body inclusivity that forms the very foundation of her process. She always samples in UK sizes 12 and 22, starting with 22, considering curvier bodies from the outset rather than as an afterthought. The designer’s latest offering featured puffy satin cut-out dresses with criss-cross tights and bodysuits inspired by Shibari rope-tying. “I think the problem with this trend,” she says, “is that the design is being created for a smaller body and then just being scaled up. Different designs work better and worse for different sizes and this should be explored within the design process. The model of operation has almost been to make the consumer customise their own bodies via dieting etc. rather than considering that all bodies are different. Now that we are starting to reject that way of working, I think the idea of custom-made garments is starting to make a comeback.”

When it comes to cut-outs, custom is one way forward but it’s not the only way. If garments were made to fit a wider range of bodies from the outset, then the cut-out trend would be much more accessible. Whether you think cut-outs celebrate the post-lockdown return of the sexy night out or serve as a reminder of how far fashion still has to go in terms of size inclusivity, it’s unlikely to go away any time soon, given its popularity among major influencers and availability at every price point from fast fashion to haute couture. As the trend continues to pervade runways and phone screens, perhaps designers can use it as an opportunity to highlight a wider range of sizes instead of falling back on pre-existing body norms. After all, everyone deserves a sexy going-out dress for the first post-lockdown party season.

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Body Positivity
sinead o'dwyer