From Venus to Marilyn: the ‘Naked Dress’ in History

In an article for i-D magazine, Zoë Kendall argues that the history of the ‘naked dress’ began with the Venus de Milo – and has been continued by Marilyn and others in the modern era. She also notes that several years before Marilyn famously sang for the President in a gown described as ‘skin and beads,’ Hollywood costumer Orry-Kelly had created the illusion of semi-nudity for her ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ number in Some Like It Hot. (A further case could be made for Marilyn’s original ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ costume from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – a fishnet bodystocking with strategically placed rhinestones. After the studio rejected it as too revealing, Travilla designed an elegant pink gown for Marilyn instead.)

“In its simplest form, a naked dress — whether sheer, flesh-toned, skin-tight or else — is designed to make the wearer appear naked. Or, at least, nearly so. A naked dress is always a contradiction. The term itself is an oxymoron, a flattening of dichotomies: to be naked and to be dressed, at once.

Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe became a sex symbol, in part, through these kinds of dresses. Less than three months before her death, and on the occasion of John F. Kennedy’s birthday, the actress sashayed across the stage at Madison Square Garden, dropping her massive ermine stole to the floor to reveal a sheer, skin-tight dress, covered — where it mattered most — in over 2500 rhinestones. The architect behind the dress was French costume designer Jean Louis, who had spent his career perfecting these kinds of career-making gowns (think Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, flipping her signature curls in that black satin strapless number), the kinds of dresses that exude glamour as much as they elicit shock, then desire. Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ gown was one of what Jean Louis called his ‘illusion’ dresses, feats of Hollywood magic that conjured nakedness from gossamer fabric and strategically-placed beads.

Monroe wore a similar naked dress in Some Like It Hot, during a scene that Roger Ebert referred to as ‘a striptease in which nudity would have been superfluous.’ Dressmakers like Louis and stars like Marilyn knew that desire always requires an illusion of some sort, a dress that teases the imagination. What do we want more than what we can’t have — or see? Marilyn’s Jean Louis dress went up for auction in 2016. For $4.8 million, the highest bidder walked away with the simulacra of Marilyn’s nakedness.

The naked dress is almost always about sex in the way that, in art (and in most situations), a woman’s nakedness is inexorable from the desire of the viewer. ‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others,’ John Berger once wrote about the annals of art history. Like the nude, the naked dress cannot exist without the gaze; it lives to be seen.”