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dressing to reveal: have skin-bearing fashion trends gone too far?

From the runway to the streets, fashion is getting increasingly provocative, with tanks going sheer and hemlines climbing higher. Is the look entering offensive territory, or is this just the next evolution in how we dress?

by Courtney Iseman
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Jul 30 2014, 6:15pm

Only a few years ago, if you had encountered a woman on the street whose top was completely sheer, you would have assumed it was a wardrobe malfunction. You would have debated tapping her on the shoulder to let her know that while that top presumably looked completely opaque in her apartment, it was completely betraying her in the sunlight. Now, sheer is everywhere. So are plunging necklines, bare midriffs and shorts cut to reveal a peek of cheek. These skin-exposing trends, no longer reserved for MTV starlets, are popping up on the runway and on the street from Hong Kong to the Lower East Side.

At this year's CFDA awards ceremony, Rihanna made headlines with a completely sheer, sparkling gown by Adam Selman. Controversy ensued, with some declaring her look as the definition of going too far and others proclaiming it a bold statement in women's liberation.

Designers have toed the line of suggestiveness for decades, but the reaction from the general public tended to be either outright negative or accepting from a place of inspiration only. In 71 Yves Saint Laurent presented a collection inspired by prostitutes of the 40s, and even though the designs didn't actually bare skin, dresses that fit tightly at the hips were then considered scandalous. Receiving a more positive response but still not creating a mass trend was Alexander McQueen's Nihilism collection in 94. As New York Magazine's "50 Most Scandalous Dresses in History" points out, McQueen's "bumster" pants highlighted a whole different sort of cleavage, cut extra low behind based on the designer's belief that the bottom of the spine is "the most erotic part of anyone's body." The difference now is that the skin-baring trend has become nearly ubiquitous on the runways, not just a statement made here and there throughout time, and the look is crossing over into the mass market.

Looks shown as sheer on the runways of designers like Givenchy used to be lined when ordered for stores, but now provocative looks aren't being compromised. Considering the increasing presence of this trend, is it empowering or just in poor taste? Perhaps it's just the direction our wardrobes are headed, like freer shapes and bared ankles in the 20s - so should we be making such a big deal about it? It's easy to forget that something as mundane today as a miniskirt caused quite the stir when it was introduced by designer Mary Quant in the 60s. Maybe our sheer shirts and skin-baring cutouts today are the mini skirts of tomorrow, and we should just accept the latest style revolution.

At this year's CFDA awards ceremony, Rihanna made headlines with a completely sheer, sparkling gown by Adam Selman. Controversy ensued, with some declaring her look as the definition of going too far and others proclaiming it a bold statement in women's liberation. The gown marked a boiling point in red carpet style's ever-upward climb into the provocative.

The nearly-nude design sparked up this year's incessant debate of what should be acceptable on social media, as well. Rihanna is one of many women to have nipple-baring images incite a ban of her account while men can appear shirtless on the platform. By appearing at a public event exposing the very same area, she ensured that thousands of people would upload an image of her, nipples and all, creating a movement that Instagram would have a hard time fighting. Other celebrities, like Scout Willis and Cara Delevingne, have joined the stand, coining the #freethenipple campaign, and using their images to promote the idea that censorship rules need to loosen to accommodate our changing society.

Men's nipples were taboo, too, up until the 1930s. But men protested until they were allowed to be seen in public shirtless, and eventually the idea became commonplace. Iggy Pop has hardly ever performed with a shirt on - imagine if a female singer did the same! Outside of performing physically rigorous activities, men tend to keep their shirts on, of course - most businesses exercise their right to request certain basic dress codes for patrons, so you'd have a hard time dining out topless, male or female.

Why is society so scandalized by something as absolutely ordinary as the female body? A scantily clad woman remains a source of controversy, at best snarked about on the internet in a liberated country like the United States, at worst punished as a crime in countries like Saudi Arabia. There, as in several Middle Eastern nations, women can never been seen in public without a burka to cover every inch of the body and a niqab, worn over the face to reveal only the eyes. It is unsettling that a woman's body is still the source of enough debate that laws are in place to govern how it's covered, and that even in more liberal places, eyebrows are raised at skin-baring style.

Designers are embracing the dare-to-bare idea en masse now. Sheerness has been quite present for a few seasons now and more for Spring/Summer 2014 than ever before. It ranged from easily wearable details like trim on a skirt to full, see-through garments at runways like Gucci, Ann Demeulemeester, Erdem, 3.1 Phillip Lim - even the typically more reserved Oscar de la Renta. Then there were those designers like Carven, J.W. Anderson, Rodarte, KENZO and Giambattista Valli who went for the total reveal with cutouts bigger and cropped hems higher than we're used to seeing. The trend has infiltrated high fashion, pop culture, mainstream retail - it should be the norm by now. We should be so accustomed to seeing a sheer top over a bra that we focus on whether we actually like that shirt instead of its modesty or lack thereof.

Much of the deciding factor of whether something is appropriate comes down to where it's being worn. You could be the biggest supporter of women celebrating their bodies and dressing however they want, but that doesn't mean you want your employees coming into work in a minidress with a plunging neckline. Larger companies usually have a set dress code that might ban anything from spaghetti straps to shorts, and even without a written set of rules, skin-baring style just doesn't carry the polish associated with professionalism.

Where you're going, what impression you want to give and what your personal sense of style is will all play a factor when you're deciding whether that dress is celebratory of your body or just kind of trashy. What you shouldn't have to consider is how society will judge you. The fear society seems to have is that a line will be crossed - it's crossed all the time, actually. Outfits can get obscene, and it's understandable that people don't want outfits to go from empowering to degrading, confident to erotic. But a sheer dress and a backless top are on their way to becoming simply other types of clothing, like slim jeans or button-down shirts. Like other wardrobe staples, they should be able to be added to one's wardrobe if one chooses, pulled out when the time and occasion is right. Resistance to this move forward will continue, just as it did for the mini skirt, but over time, we'll get used to hip-high slitted gowns, too. It wouldn't be natural for fashion to not keep evolving, no matter how slowly.

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Text Courtney Iseman