The clear-cut return of see-through fashion

three images, side by side. left to right: a model walks the runway wearing a sheer trench coat, no shirt, and a mini skirt; a woman wearing a sheer black lace bodysuit with a black bra and underwear underneath; a model walks the runway wearing a purple sheer dress with black underwear visible underneath.
Left to right: Kim Shui show during New York Fashion Week on February 12, 2023; Dua Lipa backstage at GCDS during Milan Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2023/2024; Coach Fall 2023 Ready To Wear show on February 13, 2023 in New York. (Credit: Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images; Alessandro Levati/Getty Images;

Warning: This article includes images containing nudity and partially covered nudity.

By undeniably drawing attention to the body, sheer clothing has long managed to transfix the world. And this season, transparency is back in a whole new way. 

As of late, the zeitgeist has been leaning into see-through styles that skillfully expose nipples, belly buttons and underwear. During awards season, the red carpet circuit was brimming with barely-there fabrics on all genders. On Hollywood’s biggest night, the Oscars, celebrities in body-exposing ensembles were the standout trend of the event, from Ciara’s crosshatched translucent gown to Harvey Guillen’s lacey Christian Siriano suit. 

If the Fall 2023 runways are any indication, fashion is only ramping up its fixation on X-ray fabrics. Coach’s collection presented romantic handkerchief hem dresses in playful pastel colours. Tia Adeola’s catwalk championed frothy white mesh, from a tank top to a nipple-exposing flowy dress. Kim Shui’s sultry line showcased lace bodysuits with exposed thongs and even a translucent trench coat

left: a woman on the red carpet wears a sheer dress covered in crystals, and black elbow-length gloves. right: a model walks the runway. he's wearing white pants and a sheer tank top with white florals on it.
Left to right: Ciara at the 2023 Vanity Fair Oscar Party; Tia Adeola show during New York Fashion Week on February 11, 2023. (Credit: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images; Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)

Of course, there’s a level of separation between the glamour of Hollywood and the reality of walking down the street. Skin-revealing styles have long been seen as avant-garde on the former, and inappropriate or unsafe on the latter. But these days, the appetite for sheer clothing extends beyond A-list celebrities and runway models. In fact, talk of “underwear as outerwear” has been percolating on social media for months. At the start of 2023, wearing tights as pants took off as a viral (and contentious) fashion movement on TikTok. With over 540,000 views on the #tightsaspants hashtag, the trend finds everyday people eschewing trousers or jeans in favour of gauzy hosiery. Ultimately, it speaks to a growing notion of incorporating sheer as an everyday outfit staple. 

According to Montreal-based designer Olivia Donahue, wearing sheer clothing is a way to push back on long-standing “norms” surrounding the acceptability of women’s dress. Her sustainable brand, Avenir Vert, sells clothing made with repurposed vintage fabrics, many of which are sheer. From mini-dresses to maxi skirts to ruched tops, Avenir Vert’s designs tend to reveal the wearer’s skin. “People say, ‘A lot of your stuff looks like it could be lingerie,'” she said. “And I agree. But I mean, why not?” 

Donahue said, “I think sheer clothing is beautiful and I think that, you know, everyone’s body’s beautiful.” As for the nipples, the designer said, “I think we all are just exhausted of hearing that those things need to be covered up.”

Despite sheer fabrics being stylish for centuries, see-through clothing never fails to shock. “I think, really, it became empowering in the early 1900s,” said Christa Gravel, senior stylist at Calgary-based brand Kate Hewko. She pointed to 1930s-era silent screen stars like Clara Bow, who became known for wearing sheer as an emblem of femininity. But when it comes to using sheer to expose oft-covered-up body parts, Yves Saint Laurent is widely credited as one of the first to do so. During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the French designer created the first “nude look,” with a sheer design that showcased women’s nipples. And in the years since, sheer has lived on as a symbol of bodily autonomy. The ’90s were full of sheer provocation, with celebrities like Rose McGowen and Jennifer Lopez championing their own versions of the all-revealing “naked dress.” 

an actress wearing a sheer robe on set of a film in the 1930s; a model wearing a see-through dress; a woman wearing a black, sparkly sheer dress at an award show.
Left to right: Clara Bow in the film Her Wedding Night (1930); A model wearing Yves Saint Laurent in Paris in August 1968; Jennifer Lopez at the CFDA Awards on February 28, 1998. (Credit: Paramount Studios; Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Getty Images; Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Graves attributes the more recent surge in sheer to Rihanna’s 2014 viral CFDA Fashion Awards moment where the singer wore a see-through gown made of Swarovski crystals. “She walked in with this sheer dress and everybody was like, ‘Yeah!'” Graves said.  Last year Rihanna made headlines again for stepping out in Dior lingerie during her pregnancy. Not to mention, plus-size fashion forces like Lizzo and Precious Lee have sported the trend too, further challenging notions of which bodies can be revealed in such an open way.

Donahue said, “My philosophy for my whole company [is about] embracing femininity, and I think that ties into the whole sheer clothing thing … embracing the parts of our bodies that [we] have been forever told to cover up,” she said. To her, sheer isn’t a fleeting fad, but rather a timeless style that celebrates the body in a unique way. 

“I think that fashion is wearable art, and of course, the body that it’s being worn on is part of the art itself,” she said. “Thus when a design showcases the body, the body becomes part of the artistic vision. That’s not going anywhere,” she said.