IF THERE’S ONE FASHION TREND that’s shaping up to define 2022’s sartorial highlights, it has to be the resurgence of lingerie — not as a supporting garment to be worn beneath one’s look, but as the main event.
As the 2022 Met Gala proved, the naked dress might still be a mainstay of a red carpet, but fashion’s most influential players have taken things further with the return of the risqué underwear-as-outerwear trend. The evening’s afterparties saw Kendall Jenner step out in Miu Miu négligée; Hailey Bieber in Saint Laurent hot pants and a chainmail bra; and Bella Hadid in a lacy Dilara Findikoglu lingerie set complete with garter belt and stockings — to name just a few. Even in the few weeks since, it’s clear that the trend is on the rise — at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week, Michael Lo Sordo featured glimmering “whale tails” and bedazzled bras, all is a gentle spring brought its signature corsetry to the fore, St. Agni featured sheer slip dresses, and Dyspnea brought bedazzlement to the trend with their instantly recognisable sheer sequinned designs.
While the trend is having a big moment right now, like all fashion movements, it’s simply a natural evolution of past stylings returning to popularity. ‘Underwear as outerwear’ is a fashion concept that has appeared in many forms throughout history. In fact, you’d be surprised by how many seemingly mundane modern styles count as part of it — once upon a time, even the humble T-shirt was considered an undergarment, designed to be worn under button-downs. But when the Hollywood heartthrobs of their day, Marlon Brando and James Dean, famously wore close-fitting tees with no shirt over top in A Streetcar Named Desire (1950) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955) — the trend took off, with rebellious teens wearing t-shirts as something of a radical political statement.
If you’re wondering how the trend reached into this particular day and age, you’ll have to go back much further than the ’50s to discover its unlikely origins — having ironically grown from garments designed to cover up the body, rather than reveal it.
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You’d be forgiven for thinking that the idea of wearing lingerie externally must have begun with traditionally feminine garments, given the popularity of the trend among women — but you’d also be incorrect. Hundreds of years ago in the Middle Ages, underwear as outerwear began with the codpiece, which was created circa 1463 in England when Edward IV’s parliament made it compulsory for a man to cover “his privy Members and Buttokes” (yes, really). Originally designed as baggy cloth coverings laced to the stockings, codpieces turned into something of a fashion statement emphasising one’s genitalia — the first instance of what was once designed for discretion quickly developing into a more suggestive and provocative garment.
It was also in the late 1400s that the first iterations of modern corsets were created, with the stiffened undergarment being popularised in the 16th century by Queen Catherine de’Medici of Florence — though historians have pointed out that the style was likely derived from extensive histories of body modifications practiced by women in Asia, Africa and other Indigenous cultures. Worn primarily by women, corsets were designed to lift the breasts, cinch the midriff and waist, support the back, and improve posture — all in all, attempting to conform women’s bodies to a certain standard of beauty. Corsetry reached its peak of popularity in the 19th century before declining in the early-to-mid 20th century, when designers like Coco Chanel popularised draping and looser silhouettes for women. That may have been the end of corsets as undergarments, but the style would find a new life in the latter part of the 20th century — but more on that later.
In the mid-1800s, underwear became a political statement for the first time. They were popularised by American newspaper editor and suffragette Amelia Bloomer, who fought for dress reform in response to traditional dress codes. Her name was given to the style of voluminous underpants worn under a skirt (and occasionally made visible) — bloomers — as a form of sartorial liberation. While she was more interested in bloomers for their practicality, the concept of visible undergarments certainly leans into the lingerie trends of today.
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In the 1920s, a new age of decadence, frivolity, and liberation in the face of prohibition saw the rise of flappers in the States and burlesque performers in Germany (and ultimately, across the world) — leading, in turn, to the rise in what we associate with classic ’20s attire. Bedazzled burlesque ensembles donned by the likes of Josephine Baker were clearly risqué, but don’t be fooled by the recent normalisation of slip-style flapper dresses: They were equally revolutionary at the time, as they were designed to resemble chemises and teddies; undergarments originally created to protect clothing from the body. Chemises used to be so inappropriate, in fact, that in 1783, a portrait of Marie Antoinette in a muslin chemise by Vigée Le Brun was removed from an exhibition as it was considered too saucy — oh, how they’d shudder at the sight of Kendall post-Met.
The rebellious sexual liberation movement of the ’60s pushed boundaries further when it came to fashion, moving all the way into ’70s punk subculture. Vivienne Westwood reclaimed and revived, among other Victorian garments, the corset — making it more of a tough exoskeleton, an edgy and provocative design; a far cry from its origins as a way to make women smaller, in all senses of the word.
Upper-body undergarments continued to be the focus through to the ’80s and ’90s, when the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler experimented with the idea of the female form in their exaggerated silhouettes. This was the era of Madonna and Blonde Ambition, where she famously wore that cone bra which has sparked a thousand copies. The style echoed all the underwear-as-outerwear trends that had come before it: Styles originally intended to hide a woman’s body, or to make it more conventionally adherent to beauty norms; being turned on their heads and evolving into sexually liberated and coyly daring designs.
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In the ’80s, Princess Diana — ever the style provocateur — brought new life to the slip dress after wearing one to the Met Gala. The sleek and silky Dior design turned heads and certainly saw the undergarment style rise in popularity all the way through to the ’90s. From then until the early ’00s, the lingerie trend reached even more daring heights with the rise of pop stars — the likes of Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, J.Lo, and Kylie Minogue — whose apparent uniforms featured sparkly bustiers, hotpants, and whale tails (that’s G-strings appearing out of low-slung miniskirts or pants, if you’re unfamiliar).
And now we reach the modern day, where all forms of the trend have converged into one big underwear-as-outerwear megatrend. There’s the rise of Bridgerton-inspired regencycore seeing corsets crop up everywhere; bloomers à la Fendi FW22; slips still dominating women’s evening wear for all major events; and of course, the full on lingerie-sets-as-fashion-looks donned by the likes of Hadid, Jenner and Bieber — even Julia Fox’s recent outing to go grocery shopping in her Alexander Wang underwear, her reasoning being that “if it’s socially acceptable at the beach it should be the same everywhere lol”.
Love her or hate her, you can’t deny Fox is right — the ideas of what is “socially acceptable” to wear in private or in public are being broken down further and further each passing year, in a cycle that began thousands of years ago, ever since undergarments were created in the first place. The peak of the underwear-as-outerwear trend is a full circle moment for lingerie, proving that even fashion rules are made to be broken. Now, we might be yet to see the resurgence of the codpiece as a result of the trend (though they’ve cropped up in edgy menswear collections over the years) — but with the trends moving as they are, we’ll surely keep an eye out for them.
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