While protesters took to the streets last summer, denouncing the coup Roe v. Wade, fashion was, understandably, the last thing on anyone’s mind. However, the assault on body agency swept the fashion world a few months later, with spring 2023 collections—from Rick Owens to Prada—featuring see-through, nipple-baring looks that celebrated and drew attention to the female form.
Coincidence? History differs. “There was a symbiotic relationship between women gaining more access to the public sphere and the way they dressed their bodies,” says Cassidy Zachary, fashion historian and podcast co-host Dressed: A History of Fashion. Consider: margins were shrinking at Courrèges in the mid-’60s, as birth control became more widely available and Feminine mystique can be found on many bookshelves. “It’s interesting that the concentrated attack on American women’s bodily autonomy comes at a time when the near-eradication of the once strict gender binary in fashion has given women more fashion choices than ever,” she adds. “This obviously includes, as suggested in the spring 2023 collections, the right to bare breasts.”
The original Free the Nipple movement emerged after Lina Esco’s 2013 film of the same name. It began as a topless protest that drew attention to the hypocritical censorship surrounding a woman’s nipple—posting even a glimpse could get the user censored (or even banned) on on some social networks, while uploading a picture of a man’s chest would be undisciplined. But the 2023 version of the movement feels much more accessible. It’s not about going topless—instead, luxurious sheer fabrics like tulle and mesh, mesh and more mesh cling to the body, simply leaving a lot less to the imagination.
“Spring 2023 seemed like the right time to do this respect for the female body,” says LaQuan Smith, whose show included veil-like dresses and paper-thin silk tops. “Celebrating the female form through clothing is a way for the wearer to regain her power and freedom. It is very relevant at this moment when women are fighting for their rights.”
“There’s a sense that women are reclaiming their bodies,” says designer Tory Burch, who sent models (including early girlfriend Emily Ratajkowski) down the runway in sheer jersey tops layered with also sheer lace bralettes. “Women don’t want to feel restricted and aren’t interested in hiding or shaping their natural shape,” she says. “It’s sexy, from a very feminine point of view.”
Actress Florence Pugh also got in on the trend, admitting on Instagram that “there was no way it wasn’t going to be commented on,” after wearing a sheer Valentino dress at the house’s Fall 2022 fashion show in Rome. Allison Janney and Olivia Wilde have also recently jumped on the bandwagon—proving it’s not just for Gen Z. (“We have this kind of puritanical perspective on nipples,” Wilde once said during an interview. “I think it’s really silly.” )
But it remains to be seen whether it will make the transition from the runway to everyday life, and whether Everywoman will find the concept as empowering as Wilde. “For something to really become fashion, it has to be worn,” says Zachary. “Or in the case of a nipple, bare.”
This article appears in the February 2023 issue of ELLE.