The Naked Dress

The “Illusion Dress” : With the Met Gala recently taking place and watching the amount of unfortunate see through dresses I  believe its fitting to repost this article that may illuminate some that insist in doing what in the past has  been done and worn brilliantly. Fashion designer Riccardo Tisci and his 2010 collection for Givenchy  reignited the amazing popularity the see through dress once had  when the designer presented his  stunningly embellished,  gothic gowns which celebrities immediately wore to the red carpet.  

The “sheer trend” was first made popular by the Hollywood costume designer Jean Louis, who became its champion, creating memorable and inspiring pieces that have stayed in the collective conscious for decades. Unfortunately the trend has been reenacted in so many really ghastly versions I feel we should set the record straight. Who created the see through dress, when, how and who wore it best.

 The use of lighter and more skin, revealing garments began in the 18th Century.  The sheer or neoclassical dress became a fashionable item; many believe this was thanks to the theater and costumes worn by actresses in oriental roles.  Further evidence of how the trend came to be is the famous 1764 painting by Vigée Le Brun of Marie Antoinette in a rather revealing “chemise a la reine”.   Writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote in the 1790’s about Parisian women walking  down the  streets in what seemed to be transparent  muslin gowns over a flesh colored stocking which the French dramatist  rather shockingly pronounced  as “a la sauvage”or savage  look.  In the 20th Century these “windows to the skin” were mostly illusions created by  incorporating  gauze or chiffon,  over flesh colored fabric and the Hollywood costume designers played a key role in making  the “see through look” extremely desirable.

Marie Antoinette by Vigée Le Brun 1764.

The author of the “illusion dress”  was  designer Jean Louis, these one of a kind dresses were created for Marlene Dietrich during the “Blue Angels” concert years. In the 1950s the actress was offered a contract to perform on the Las Vegas stage and Louis who at the time worked at Columbia Pictures was commissioned to design these incredibly embroidered pieces that gave the illusion of the actress being completely naked. The secret behind the “illusion dress” was guarded for many years and only recently we discovered that Louis like Dior would create foundations for many of his designs.

These foundations would serve as the base for a dress.  In Dietrich’s case, Jean created form-fitting gowns made from soufflé chiffon encrusted with clear crystals that seemed to appear nude, besides being beautiful these dresses were feats of engineering. Under the dress the designer created a flesh colored bodysuit in nylon fabric which was shaped and cut in such a way it gave the singer a perfect body.

Marlene would then be assisted  into this body suit and zipped up before getting  into the sheer creation that would take her into the Vegas stage and give her a whole new career as one of the most memorable cabaret acts in the world. Jean Louis also created the iconic dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday Mister President to J.F.K.  In the late 1970’s designer Bob Mackie who dressed Cher and other contemporary Hollywood celebrities brought back the sheer dress popularity.

Other Hollywood designers that made the “sheer dress” happen: Travis Banton who was the head designer for Paramount Pictures is considered one of the best dressmakers to ever come out of the studio system. His designs for Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong are still being viewed in museums and discussed in fashion and costume conferences.  Adrian Adolph Greenberg better known simply as Adrian was the head designer at MGM and this incredibly talented artist is regarded as creating the suit with padded shoulders for actress Joan Crawford and his use of sheer fabric was unique, always accompanied of embroidery and an aura of glitz.

Fashion designers Orry Kelly from Warner Brothers Studios and Travilla from Twentieth Century Fox created memorable sheer dresses for Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield,  in a period where films were being chastised and controlled by the Hayes Office who reviewed every film being done in Hollywood to avoid the presence of adult content which is one of the many reasons movies were extremely discreet. However, directors, producers and costume designers found a way to get their messages on screen and  costume played a key role in doing so.

Jane Mansfield in a sheer gown.
Marilyn Monroe in a design by Orry Kelly for the film Some Like It Hot, 1959.

Recently Thierry Mugler, Christian Lacroix , Versace, Tom Ford, Stephane Rolland,  Zuhair Murad, Elie Saab,  Marchesa, Ralph and Russo  have given  the “illusion dress”  new life, inspired by these Hollywood creators and their masterful work.