Singer Rihanna made a huge splash when she wore that sheer breast baring, Swarovski crystal incrusted Adam Selman gown to the CFDA Awards where she was honoured with the council’s style icon award. The award was presented by Anna Wintour and Vogue magazine later tweeted that “Rihanna has become the rare celebrity who does not follow fashion – she affects it.” While this is absolutely true of the 26-year-old trendsetter, there are decades upon decades of women who have pushed the envelope with then-scandalous dress choices. No matter what the backlash may have been over Rihanna’s revealing gown, the singer’s dress was tame in comparison to the overtly erotic stage costumes of jazz-age icon Josephine Baker.
Rihanna in Adam Selman, CFDA's, 2014.
Josephine Baker, 1920s. (R: Photo by Luis Ramon Marin)
In fact, every shocking dress that hits a red carpet follows generations of bold women and designers who harnessed the sheer beauty and power of the female form as the ultimate fashion statement.
Marilyn Monroe’s white pleated halter dress from the Seven Year Itch, designed by costume designer William Travilla, was a seemingly normal dress until the icon posed over that subway vent. Images of Monroe coyly clutching her billowing skirt remain the most iconic images of the starlet. Then there’s the skin-tight, nude, glittering dress Monroe wore in one of her final public appearances when she famously serenaded JFK with a breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday.” It’s reported that the Jean Louis dress was so tight the actress had to be sewn in to it and wore nothing underneath. Cher and Bob Mackie cornered the market on beautiful sheer bear-all dresses in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1987, Grace Jones wore at 20-foot long Keith Haring dress at a New Years Eve party at the Roseland Ballroom, her upper body was covered only in body paint.
(L) Marilyn Monroe in William Travilla, Seven Year Itch, 1955. (R) Marilyn Monroe in a Jean Louis dress that had approximately 2,500 rhinestones sewn into it, Singing Happy Birthday to President Kennedy, Madison Square Garden, 1962.
(L) Cher in Bob Mackie, MET Gala, 1974. (R) Cher in Bob Mackie, Oscars, 1988.
Grace Jones in Keith Haring, 1987.
More recently, Liz Hurley, J. Lo, and Geri Halliwell are examples of how a dress can launch a career or further ones’ celebrity status. Outside of shock value, there is a certain strategic benefit to the power of a barely-there dress How this power is harnessed is determined by the prowess of the wearer. Early twentieth century Italian heiress Luisa Marchesa Casati, famously said “I want to be a living work of art,” as the muse to many since, the spirit behind this statement lives on through dresses that continue to push the envelope and the brave souls who wear them allowing us to revere and sometimes ridicule their daring wears.
(L) Elizabeth Hurley (with Hugh Grant) in Versace, 1994. (R) Geri Halliwell sewed a union jack tea towel over a black Gucci minidress she thought was too plain for her Brit Awards performance - the rest is history, 1997.
(L) Rose McGowan, MTV Movie Awards, 1998. (R) Lil Kim in an outfit by her stylist Misa Hylton-Brim, MTV Video Music Awards, 1999.
(L) Courtney Love in Dior Haute Couture by John Galliano, Golden Globes, 2000. (R) Jennifer Lopez in Versace, Grammy Awards, 2000. (the dress had been worn by Amber Valletta on the runway, Donatella herself and Geri Halliwell but wasn't truly noticed until J. Lo wore it)