As protesters took to the streets last summer, decrying the overturn of Roe v. Wadefashion was, understandably, the last thing on anyone’s mind. However, the attack on bodily agency rippled into the sartorial world a few months later, with spring 2023 collections—from Rick Owens to Prada—featuring sheer, nipple-baring looks that both celebrated and called attention to the female form.
Coincidence? History begs to differ. “There’s been a symbiotic relationship between women gaining greater access to the public sphere and the way they dress their bodies,” says Cassidy Zachary, a fashion historian and co-host of the podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion. Think: hemlines shrinking at Courrèges in the mid-’60s, as birth control became more widely available and The Feminine Mystique could be found on many a bookshelf. “It’s interesting that the concentrated assault on American women’s bodily autonomy comes during 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 apparently includes, as proposed by the spring 2023 collections, the right to bare breasts.”
The original Free the Nipple movement emerged in the wake of Lina Esco’s 2013 film of the same name. It started as a topless protest calling attention to the hypocritical censorship surrounding the female nipple—posting even a glimpse could likely get a user censored (or even banned) on some social media, while uploading an image of a male-identified chest would go undisciplined. But 2023’s version of the movement feels far more approachable. It’s not about going totally topless—instead, luxurious sheer fabrics like tulle and mesh, mesh, and more mesh cling to the body, simply leaving much less to the imagination.
“Spring 2023 felt like the right moment to dig into this reverence for the female body,” says LaQuan Smithwhose show included veil-like gowns and tissue-paper-thin silk tops. “Celebrating the female form through clothes is a way for the wearer to reclaim their power and freedom. It is very topical in this moment when women are fighting for their rights.”
“There is a sense of women reclaiming their bodies,” says designer Tory Burchwho sent models (including early adopter Emily Ratajkowski) down the runway in sheer jersey tops layered with also-sheer lace bralettes. “Women don’t want to feel restricted, and they aren’t interested in hiding or contouring their natural form,” she says. “It’s sexy, from a decidedly feminine point of view.”
Actress Florence Pugh has also participated in the trend, acknowledging on Instagram that “there was no way there wouldn’t be a commentary on it,” after wearing a transparent Valentino dress to the house’s fall 2022 couture show in Rome. Allison Janney and Olivia Wilde have recently jumped on the bandwagon, too—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 if it will make the transition from runway to daily life, and if the Everywoman will find the concept as empowering as Wilde has. “For something to truly become fashion, it has to be worn,” Zachary says. “Or in the case of the nipple, bared.”
This article appears in the February 2023 issue of ELLE.