See-Through Clothing: Sexy or TMI?

June 14, 2014
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As with so many things, the answer is: depends on the situation. Recently pop star Rihanna made headlines with her sparkling champagne-colored gown that revealed little to the imagination: her nipples were visible, though she did wear panties below. There was quite the brouhaha over it. But it turns out see-through dresses on starlets and celebrities are nothing new. A gallery piece from The Frisky contains a few see-through stunners, many of them worn by reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian, who seems to have made a career out of being nothing special while having a lot of money.

In fact, the concept of transparency is kind of a nifty metaphor for reality TV; so much is shown that very little is left for us to imagine. But the key to sexy clothing is sometimes a question of class and sophistication; there’s a fine line between strikingly daring and obnoxious overkill.

See-Through Clothing: Sexy or TMI?

One thing that made Rihanna’s gown work so well is that the dress design hearkens back to the 1920s, an era of glamour that was very feminine, with a sleek silhouette, subtle colors and exquisite beadwork (Rihanna’s gown contained over 20,000 Swarovski crystals). Keeping the style classic made the gown a daring statement that was also classy. Some media outlets compared Rihanna’s look to 1920s dancer Josephine Baker’s slinky, sparkly gowns, or the racy pale pink number worn by Marilyn Monroe when she sang that breathy birthday wish to President John F. Kennedy. Marilyn had to be sewn into the form fitting dress; maybe that’s why her singing was so breathy; the gown was so tight, she could hardly draw air!

See-through clothing is not exactly new: the Edwardian era saw many blouses in diaphanous fabrics like silk organza and fine linen. But of course, those blouses were meant to be worn with rather elaborate undergarments that didn’t allow any nipplage to show through. Still, they were quite racy for their time! The 1920s featured ball gowns and flapper dresses in elaborately beaded fabrics, some of which were see-through; but again, the underwear covered all the naughty bits (at least until a certain amount of champagne had been consumed; then those wee flappers had a tendency to jump into the nearest fountain and nothing was left to the imagination anymore – there’s a scene depicting this in Fitzgerald’s novel of sexy excess, The Great Gatsby).

See-Through Clothing: Sexy or TMI?

But the next time we really saw see-through fashions was in the 1960s: and that, being a time of social turmoil and shifting sexual attitudes, meant fashions started to shock and provoke. So see-through blouses were often worn without benefit of brassieres (as you may recall, women were burning those lace and wire contraptions by the score as a symbol of sexual liberation). Public nudity in fact became a fairly common sight in the daily news, from Woodstock to Haight-Ashbury. The “back to the earth” movement praised natural states of being and nudity allows people to feel closer to nature; in fact many of the communes that sprouted up then chose remote locations to make nudity more comfortable, away from prying neighbors.

In the 1960s high fashion took to sheer clothing quite dramatically: Italian designer Missoni wanted a smooth silhouette for his sheer tops and dresses and asked his runway modes to lose their undergarments; under the bright lights their nude forms were easily seen. Far from being scandalized, the fashion world was delighted and other designers followed this trend, including Yves St. Laurent. Soon see-through tops and mini dresses were available in shops everywhere as were the young women who dared to wear them and challenge the status quo. Do a search online for “1960s sheer fashions” to see a gorgeous array of feminine looks, some classic, some Bohemian, all of them pretty darn sexy.

Nowadays, dressing to shock seems less about making a social statement or exploring exciting fashion innovations, and more about generating publicity. Maybe we have Cher to thank for this. The singer/actress made a name for herself wearing shocking outfits and made designer Bob Mackie a household name. Many of these were see-through, but usually the sparkles were placed upon flesh-colored fabric so the illusion of fleeting nudity was just that: an illusion. Given how gaudy some of her outfits were (full of feathers, jewels, spikes and leather), nudity would have just seemed quaint, anyway.

Coleen Singer is a writer, photographer, film editor and all-around geeky gal at, where she often waxes eloquent about sex, porn, sex toys, censorship, the literary and pandering evils of Fifty Shades of Grey and other topics not likely to be found on the Pulitzer Prize shortlist. She is also the editor and curator of When she is not doing all of the above, Singer is an amateur stock-car racer and enjoys modifying vintage 1970s cars for the racetrack. Oh, she also likes porn.


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