You’ve been deemed the fashion icon of the year, by the CFDA and Vogue no less. The red carpet is laid out for you, and Anna Wintour herself will present the award in front of an audience of industry insiders and heavy hitters. So what, pray tell, are you going to wear?
If you should ever find yourself in this predicament, a good place to start would be to ring up Rihanna. Just a few weeks ago, the Bermudian songstress hit it out of the park at the CFDA awards. So, what does an icon wear? Skin-colored fishnet from head to toe, dripping with 230,000 Swarovski crystals, each the size of a pen tip, and … not much else. What she lacked in fabric she made up for in brio and élan. The choice was inspired, lighting up the virtual world and proving once and for all that if Rihanna wants to be naked, no social media outlet can stop her.
Starting with Adam and Eve, clothing’s main function has been as a conduit for coverage. And yet, dressing to undress – that is, the paradox of clothing that somehow discloses more than it hides – is especially poised to stress the ingenious nuances of sartorial artistry. Thanks to the psychology of dress, there is a fine line between concealing and revealing. The most brazen attempts turn to the tools of the tailor, diaphanous drapes in gauzy cottons, translucent silks, and luculent lattices embellished with flickers, sparkles and glint. The result celebrates the human form while simultaneously transforming the wearer into a radiating, otherworldly vision. What’s sexier than naked? The Naked Dress.
The first modern dressers to appropriate the Naked Dress did so at the turn of the 19th century. The spirit of the French Revolution, as well as the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, inspired neo-classical styles where acceptable décolletage might include a view of the entire breast, barely covered by the most pellucid of fabrics. As evidenced in the portrait of Paulina Bonaparte, these ethereal maidens clothed in papery sheets left little to the imagination.
It would be another hundred years before the fluffy, frilly, buttoned-up purity of the Victorians relented to expose flesh once more. In the 1920s, the decade led by a generation of Bright Young Things, arms, legs and bosoms reemerged, this time tinged with the boyish charms of la garçonne. Flappers need to flap, so the sheer, flimsy fabrics of the popular shifts were covered in beads, sequins and tassels. The amazing Josephine Baker captured the spirit of the age as she cavorted across Europe’s great staged in harried ecstasies, set off to a tilt in an entire wardrobe of Naked Dresses.
The elegance of the 1930s was promulgated by Hollywood’s golden era. The elaborate film sequences of the pre-Hayes Code silver screen provide some of the most breathtaking instances of the Naked Dress – see Jean Harlow’s spectacular bias-cuts in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Joan Crawford’s dazzling staircase scene in Dancing Lady (1933). The austerity of the war years rolled in a new wave of prim and proper dressing. Enter Marilyn Monroe. First came the diaphanous pleats from The Seven Year Itch, followed by a sultry, dripping little number in Some Like it Hot. But the pièce de resistance in her arsenal of Naked Dresses came in 1962, as the sex bomb crooned an unforgettable rendition of Happy Birthday to rumored lover President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962. The dress, designed by Jean Louis, still holds the record as the most expensive film costume ever sold at auction, estimated at $1,267,500. A birthday suit indeed.
Marilyn set the standard and others followed suit. The effect of the Naked Dress was adapted by the most famous performers of the 1970s, an era where a little nudity never bothered Diana Ross and Cher became living breathing disco balls ready burn on and on. More contemporary incantations include a fiery Devon Aoki in Thierry Mugler shot by David LaChapelle and airy, elfin silver sheath worn by a baby-faced Kate Moss.
Add to this illustrious list the divine Miss Fenty. We can all wonder how referential her jaw dropping appearance in the Naked Dress was. Was Rihanna dressed as Diana Ross as Josephine Baker? Is she the modern Marilyn? The possibility is tantalizing, as it would prove an auspicious thread of audacious, fierce women whose talent as entertainers is as boundless as their ambitions. What we do know is that in the capable hands of amazing duo of Adam Selman and Mel Ottenberg, Rihanna solidified her place as fashion icon for the ages. Shine bright like a diamond.
(L) Portrait of Marie Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefevre. (R) Josephine Baker, 1925.
(L) Jean Harlow wearing a Gown by Adrian in "Dinner at Eight", Photo by George Hurrell, 1933. (R) Joan Crawford in "Dancing Lady", 1933.
Marilyn Monroe. (L-R: In Seven Year Itch, 1955 / In Some Like It Hot, 1959 / At JFK’s Birthday, May 19th 1962)
(L) Diana Ross, Photo by Richard Avedon, 1970. (R) Cher, 1972.
(L) Model in Thierry Mugler, Photo by David LaChapelle. (R) Kate Moss & Naomi Campbell, 1993.