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February 13, 2024

Eileen Lincoln

On a night out, there is nothing I love wearing more than a sheer dress: covering the majority of my body yet providing a sense of intrigue in the very nature of its opacity. It is a type of self-dictated exposure that drives a confidence I have never previously felt in my fashion expression, where the agency I have over my body and the manner in which others will perceive it almost contributes to the effect of the outfit itself; the phenomenon of sheer pieces as a recurring style in the fashion industry, especially viewed within the past few years, is completely unsurprising to me. 


With a greater focus on body positivity and inclusivity in the advertising tactics of fashion companies, the question of visibility oftentimes follows—is the overt visibility of the female body liberating in itself, or is it the power over this visibility? Should the exposure, and coinciding vulnerability, entrenched by sheer clothing always be deemed a radical, progressive shift in our cultural relation to female (im)modesty?


The popularity of sheer clothing, specifically within the past year, can be viewed within both high-end and low-end companies: from the Prada Spring 2024 show to the highest trending products on Shein, sheer fashion has arguably taken the industry by storm. And yet, there is a certain degree of tastefulness assigned to these pieces, largely dependent on the cost and reputations of the brands that produce them—there is a fine line drawn between what nipple or thong exposure is beautiful, sexy, and powerful rather than outright objectionable. Although met with some backlash, Kate Moss’ iconic sheer dress at the Elite Model Agency party in 1993 is deemed a “moment in fashion history,” her slim body looming in the comments that ensued in the media. Bodily visibility, and its ultimate respectability in the fashion industry, has always been extremely conditional, where the privilege of this exposure is only assigned to bodies emulating current standards of beauty; white, wealthy, thin, and attractive women present in the high fashion world were the only individuals who could wear sheer clothing without it being perceived as slutty or indecent.


The growing accessibility of sheer clothing, however, marks a distinction in which it can be reinvented through the individual, resisting this previous cultural designation; fast fashion brands have provided an entrance into sheer clothing that permits a wider demographic to wear these types of pieces. The difference between sheer trends of the 90s and early 2000s, in comparison to the past year, is this very notion of obtainability, with these sheer pieces trickling down into reinvented, less expensive forms, becoming a common factor in nightlife attire. Sheer fashion now holds an entire new resonance in female autonomy and the deriving of sexual expression outside of societal definitions of modesty now that it has become more widely available.


With the trend becoming popularized in predominantly club or night-out settings, the revealing nature of sheer clothing has reached a new extreme, pushing the boundaries of what clothing is considered sexy and attractive for women to wear. Although hiding behind a translucent piece of fabric, sheer clothing can oftentimes place women in a position of hypervisibility, one that could not be entirely fueled by their desire to be exposed—if the decision to wear sheer clothing is mainly derived from external influences (as it oftentimes is), it may feel as if this vulnerability of the body is required to become “desirable.” Although sheer clothing can feel liberating to wear, it can also result in a false sense of liberation: that bodily visibility is a necessary measure in progressing women’s relationship to the clothing that we wear, rather than something that we can dictate on the basis of our own comfortability.


The sheer fashion trend will likely persist, especially considering how many instances it has re-emerged in the past few decades. The popularity of sheer clothing can be interpreted as a symbol of a shifting relationship women have with their bodies—both in garnering their autonomy over how much skin they wish to show and a new, simultaneous vulnerability resulting from social pressures towards transparent clothes. As much as I love the sheer clothing trend and how sheer pieces make me feel towards my body, it is also important that we do not equate immodesty with progress, surpassing the threshold of how we wish our bodies to be exposed.

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