‘Sheer Power’: When Marilyn’s Dress Made History

Writing for Vogue, Hannah Jackson retraces the history of the ‘naked dress,’ from pre-Revolutionary France to Marilyn and beyond.

“Lately fashion has left little to the imagination. The sheer-dress trend, while varying in levels of (im)modesty, is inescapable, as barely concealed nipples, belly buttons, and thongs have graced every red carpet from the Grammys to the Oscars. While ‘90s revivals have dominated the trend’s resurgence, translucent garments have been making jaws drop and eyes bulge for centuries.

The mysterious 18th-century Portrait of a Young Woman in White by an unknown artist has enjoyed a renewed cultural interest as the cover of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. But the artwork, in which the subject’s breasts are visible through a sheer layer of fabric, is emblematic of the attire favored by French courtesans around the turn of the 19th century. The style, which writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier dubbed ‘à la sauvage,’ ‘did not leave the beholder to divine, but perceive every secret charm,’ Mercier wrote.

Sheer garments continued to scandalize after the French Revolution. In 1913 diaphanous so-called X-ray skirts and dresses caused such outrage that the mayor of Portland, Oregon, ordered wearers be arrested, while the Oregon Daily Journal reported, ‘X-Ray Skirts Break Up Home of Millionaire‘. Regarding her fashion-related divorce, Bertha Hanscom, 30, said, ‘My husband is an old fossil…I’m built for the X-ray skirt, and I’m going to wear ‘em. He doesn’t like them, but I don’t care. Wait till I get my divorce, and I’ll make his eyes pop.’ (Her scandalized husband, James, 60, told the paper, ‘Bertha wore not only diaphanous skirts but slit ones.’)

Silent film starlet Clara Bow secured her sex-symbol status with 1925’s My Lady of Whims thanks to a scandalously see-through dress. When Bow’s character, Prudence Severn, is invited to a costume ball with the theme ‘the less worn, the easiest mended,’ she takes the message literally, wowing in a barely-there gown. The dress—which made it to the big screen before the entertainment industry adopted a set of self-censorship guidelines called the Hays Code—was so revealing that it would still shock by today’s standards.

In 1962, Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President‘ dress catapulted sheerness back into the spotlight, and stars like Jane Birkin and Cher kept the controversial look alive in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. But the ‘90s ushered in a true renaissance. Sheerness, which paired well with the grunge ethos, was beloved by designers … Although it became more normalised by the ‘90s, the bold look turns heads in any decade.

Sheerness came back in full force in 2022 and shows no sign of slowing down … Perhaps it’s an act of cultural pushback against the government’s puritanical restrictions on women’s bodies. Maybe it’s a sign that we shouldn’t be so concerned with our own nakedness. No matter how you wear it, sheer is sexy, subversive, and powerful.”