This Summer’s Hottest Look Is Skin. Lots of It.
“What do we wear now?” has become fashion’s most pressing post-vaccine question. (Perhaps tied with “How do we make money now?”). One answer, according to celebrities who are currently shedding clothes like snakes lose skin: nothing. We are wearing nothing now.
After 15 months of isolation and next to no external validation, it makes sense that we’d want to get naked. Especially if we were, say, Milo Ventimiglia (and his legs) parading around in extra-short shorts, or Megan Thee Stallion playing nurse for a promotional photoshoot in an assless white skirt.
Or consider Lizzo, pants-less and going on a late-night french-fry run. Emily Ratajkowski managing to both hold her baby and show off her strappy cutout bikini also comes to mind as exemplary naked dressing.
Celebrities have long loved the next-to-nothing trend. See: the sheer (save for 2,500 shimmering rhinestone appliqués) Marilyn Monroe wore to sing happy birthday to JFK. Jane Birkin was a fan of see-through mesh dresses. Cher and Tina Turner reinvented performance costumes in their metallic, but fleshy, outfits.
A whole genre of red carpet glamour emerged in the early 2000s, where celebrities attended premieres or award shows in micro bits of fabric or strategically-placed tulle that made the look just safe enough for primetime. It was the sexed-up Disney Princess look. Rihanna did it best at the CFDA Awards in 2014, when she wore a Swarovski-crystal-encrusted Adam Selman gown.
Now, things are a bit more casual, almost practical—if you disregard the cutouts. Take it from Christian Siriano, who put a model in a tea-length winter coat with huge slits down the torso and legs. It will not protect you from the cold. It is designed, instead, to make you look hot.
Proenza Schouler sent models including Ella Emhoff and Meadow Walker (daughter of the late Fast & Furious star Paul) down its runway wearing ribbed cardigans left unbuttoned from the ribcage down. Vogue dubbed this the “sexy cardi trend.”
But now it’s not just the rich and sculpted who are bearing arms, abs, butts, and boobs. The look has trickled down from runways and hit fast fashion stores. Zara currently has nearly 550 outfits for sale that feature cut-outs that slash through the bust, waist, and shoulders.
Zara, Shien, and ASOS all sell versions of a creamsicle-hued dress with gaping peek-a-boo holes around the stomach. “Apologies in Advance, But Holes Are the New Polka-Dots,” read a vaguely-threatening InStyle headline this spring.
A TikTok personality and trend forecaster named Agustina Panzoni helpfully came up with a name for the look: subversive basics.
“This trend is all about basics that rebel to the point of losing their utility,” Panzoni said in her TikTok. She showed pieces like a Victoria Beckham little black dress with a keyhole neckline and ribcage cutout and a white tank top distressed with overlapping holes.
Writing for Shift magazine, Sammy Kumar noted queer men embracing the trend along with women. One male fashion student who wears cutout tank tops told Kumar, “A lot of straight people will stare, and I will feel uncomfortable. When I am around my friends, then obviously, I will be fine with that.”
Women who show skin are well accustomed to the male gaze and prodding from others about who their outfits are “for.” The subversive basics trend, Kumar argues, reclaims the inherent sexuality of fleshy looks. It is a means of self-expression rather than objectification.
But maybe some people do want to be checked out a bit. “During the pandemic, there’s been so much emphasis on being good,” Heather Shannon, a sex-positive therapist based in Puerto Rico, said. “Wear your mask, wash your hands, protect your neighbors. There are some wild parts coming out now saying, ‘I’ve been good, and now I want to be wild and play.’”
Shannon added that she recently spoke with a friend about dressing up. “We said, we want to look sexy and we want people to be nice, but not say anything,” she explained. “We can feel that conflict in ourselves.”
The trend is ultimately a visual representation of what we’re all doing this summer: coming out. We’re spilling back onto the streets, and out of our clothes.