SRC 90th Anniversary
Opinion //

“Do my tits bother you?”

On the naked dress and the sexualisation of wom*n's bodies

Art by Ranuka Tandan.

Something about it is almost lethal. The turn of a waist, or the tasteful slip of gauze as it falls over a bare shoulder. An underwear line, half-hidden. Beige tape below the breast. There’s the immateriality of it all, the illusory play of light – how it touches our bodies the way nothing else does. Not nude, but naked. 

When Rihanna wore Adam Selman’s Swarovski dress at the 2014 Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Awards, news sites all over the world described it as her most daring red carpet look. Featuring more than 200,000 crystals hand-embellished onto a transparent fishnet gown, it was an almost absurd display of luxury and eroticism. However, its ability to shock was in more than just the extravagant dress. By wearing spectacular fashion, Rihanna ultimately revealed how the political site of the female body is itself a spectacle, a performance, and a crafted image. 

This notion of the spectacle harkens back to Guy Debord’s Marxist theory, where a society of appearance both falsifies and reflects reality. Through the idea of play, actions transcend the ordinary to portray a desired impression. Images replace the real, and the ordinary self becomes the extraordinary other. Housed in a room of representations, it is the product of reality itself. This can be seen in the naked dress – a piece of clothing that is sheer, translucent, fitted, or revealing. It exposes the naked body, while also transforming it into something beyond the ‘authentic’ world. It encompasses the real, and the illusion of the real. Are we looking at a clothed body? A naked body? Or perhaps something else entirely?

As wearers of spectacular fashion, women are subjected to cultural and political conceptions of the physical self. By revealing flesh, the naked dress forces us to interrogate the way that women’s bodies are commodified in a Western patriarchal society. The sexualisation of the female form disrupts the purely aesthetic appeal of the naked dress, if such a thing exists at all. More than any other article of clothing, its relationship to the body is an essential part of its design. It is not only activated through embodiment, but given meaning through movement. It is almost entirely dependent on the wearer, whose body is the finishing touch. Selman himself noted that the most scandalous part of the Swarovski dress was not the crystals or the fishnet, but the beauty of the female form. What we see is a dress that reveals as much as it suggests, like a hand reaching out: an invitation, or a challenge. 

The political site of the female body is further magnified in the celebrity sphere, where there is a blurred division between reality and the playful society of spectacles. Typically worn by celebrities at fashion and media events, the naked dress exists as part of cultural performance. In these exclusively theatrical spaces, spectacular fashion is not simply an object of clothing, but a personified representation of fantasy. At an award show full of photographers and onlookers, Rihanna actively participates in the culture of image-making. Picture the flash of a camera on diamonds, the animating effect of a single spark magnified. The glorious radiance of a crystal do-rag. How the naked dress absorbs heat, repurposes flesh. In this world, the wearer is transformed into a spectacle that can only function through illusions and commodities. She consumes her own image; she becomes a spectator of herself. The woman is no stranger to this feeling, spectacular fashion or not. 

Although the naked dress appears to reveal what is usually hidden, it is inevitably a highly constructed image. Underneath her slip of fishnet, Rihanna’s chest is bare, but her beige coloured underwear is plainly visible. The purposeful revelation of what is known to be a hidden undergarment is almost as equally startling as her exposed body. More than transparency, there is the question of nakedness as a performance of intimacy – we only see what we have been allowed to see. Skin as costume, skin as delight. And it is delightful, in the way that spectacular fashion always is, but rather than an elaborate display of feathered shawls and puff pastry organza, we are left with a dress that is ironically as excessive as it is scarce. As Journalist Cait Munro describes, the naked dress conceals a “facade being held together by a bricolage of double-sided tape, bizarre styling tricks, and possibly black magic.” The naked dress, then, as bewitching. The wearer as enchantress. Although it supposedly reveals what is hidden underneath, it merely transforms the body into a constructed ideal of rehearsed revelation, sheltered by the seductive glamour of illusions, of something beyond our imagination. 

In the society of the spectacle, interactions between fashion and the female body are highly political and complex. In post-modernity, the naked dress may appear to be a subtler expression of extreme fashion on the runway. However, it emulates the playful spectacle that continues to shock, enthral and surprise. The naked dress carries with it an element of drama in disguise. It is an homage to contrasting images: the diamonds and the fishnet, the exaggerated act of stripping bare, the sharp feelings ignited by the most mundane and intimate moments. There is, of course, the theatrical significance of something as precise a silhouette. When asked about her bare breasts, Rihanna simply said, “I just liked it better without the lines underneath. Could you imagine the CFDA dress with a bra? I would slice my throat.”