Fashion is about clothes, but when the clothes are barely there, are they still fashion?
By Luo Zhao Mo
For her 46th birthday, Jennifer Lopez wore a dress so sheer and revealing that many women I know were either full of admiration, or aversion. I don’t have such extreme feelings. Jenny from the block has worn a lot less: her own skin the garment of choice. In fact, near-nudity is so common among pop stars today that it is strange nobody wonders why they’re still wearing clothes. Besides, you do become numb to the less-to-show-more display. Even Miss Manners isn’t talking about it. I guess finding dresses that do not reveal must have become so tough that picking the first scanty number is a lot easier. Chances are, if your job is to sing (about the booty!), cloth and public appearances are as agreeable as Taylor Swift and Spotify.
Turning forty-six today isn’t the same as it was before. This isn’t 1950, and Ms Lopez is celebrating it. Her body is celebrating too. For many women, forty-six isn’t supposed to look like that. Ms Lopez knows it, but just in case you don’t, here, look at this body; take a close look. Even knickers are dispensed with so that you get unbroken lines of the curves of the rump. Marvel! This is, without doubt, flaunting the figure, not showing off clothes. If this is about the dress, surely there would be more of it to see. So why are people talking about the dress Jennifer Lopez wore?
While I wasn’t seized by extreme feelings, I was occupied by nagging thoughts. Firstly, I wondered how she had slipped into such a dress. It can’t be that easy, as anyone who has worn pantyhose will tell you. And, secondly, when so little fabric is used that you see past the dress to zero in on the body, is this still fashion as we know it?
The dress in question is by Bao Tranchi, a little known Vietnamese-American fashion and costume designer, who calls it “geometric bodywear” or, according to her bio, “carving out the female form in super-sexy, unexpected graphic ways”. Ms Tranchi has dressed Demi Lovato, Rita Ora, Selena Gomez (who wore a Tranchi bodysuit in Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood music video) and even Madonna (contributions to the costumes of the singer’s 5th concert tour ‘Drown World’ in 2001 that were designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier and Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared2). While Ms Lopez birthday dress isn’t as fierce as the typical Tranchi body-con number, it is as revealing.
The thing is, this is not doing nude for dudes, unless you’re Kanye West and you put your wife in clothes that make your pals envious that the missus can go out in a dress that is not much of a dress, even when she’s pregnant! Can you tame a shrew by baring her body? This is also not performance artist Marina Abramović exposing herself as kind of statement that undresses the mysteries of art. This is, as it appears to me, one woman telling other women—worldwide audience, no less—“Look, I’m not wearing a bra and I am also not wearing panties”. Going bra-less is the way to go, we’re led to believe since the side boob became exposure du jour, never mind if they mostly look like squashed baos (here’s looking at you, Lady Gaga). But now, after other attempts by even actresses—Kate Hudson, Jennifer Lawrence, and, gasp, Gwyneth Paltrow—ditch the underwear is the celebrity style to watch. Victoria’s Secret should be worried.
Is pop stars’ obsession with nudity the same as fashion’s obsession with thinness? I’m not sure. Which is worse: exposing skin or baring skinniness? Jennifer Lopez bares a body that, on the whole, looks healthy; her curves a confirmation that she’s not cut off from cuisines. Her generous show of skin won’t bother anyone except, perhaps, those with modesty issues. The house of Saint Laurent, on the other hand, ran an ad last month in British Elle that showed an unidentifiable model with impossibly skinny limps. It prompted the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to say that they “… considered the model appeared unhealthily underweight in the image and concluded that the ad was irresponsible.” The advertisement was, unsurprisingly, banned, and ASA ruled that, in its existing form, the ad must not surface again. Ironically, it has since gone quite viral.
No one at Saint Laurent (or Kering, which owns the brand) has issued a statement in response to the ban although it is widely reported in the mass media. I find it rather curious that despite the present climate in fashion marketing in which there’s a strong desire for brands to show models that can project a healthy body image, there are still those labels who must work with the reed-thin and the sick-looking. A slender body is not necessarily a bad thing (if we accept that there are many body types), but thinness that suggests illness, malnutrition, or drug habit is not exemplary in a pop culture of two many impressionable consumers. There is a possibility, of course, that the model is a healthy individual, just as Ms Lopez is, but body image today is very much connected with what models and celebrities project.
We can’t deny that performers these days have more influence on admirers than those from the past. In the Twenties, Josephine Baker, the “first black superstar”, was one of the earliest to sing and dance nearly-nude as part of her stage act at the theatre Folies Bergère in Paris, but she does not go scantily-clad past the stage door. Her banana dance (so called because she wore little more than a hula skirt made of artificial bananas) and her routine were so daring and body-aware that she has now been referred to as “Beyonce of her day”. The women in the audience may have been charmed by Ms Baker’s erotic performance, but none considered emulating her. The daring, sexually in tune among them may attempt her look at home, but it is unlikely they would go barely dressed in public places. On-stage and off-stage were clearly demarcated.
That was then. Now, aided and facilitated by Instagram, many women want to look as sexy as their favourite stars in the latter’s IG accounts. Sexiness is not nearly as sexy unless it goes offline too. Some Instagrammers are not merely photo bloggers, they’re influencers as well. Snapshots have clearly supplanted text as the preferred medium of communication (and bragging), and more influencers will reach out to their followers with vivid pictures of their ways with clothes, or without. Stars are supporting other stars too. Joining the you-go, girl shout-out was Kim Kardashian, who Tweeted: ““Damn!!!!! How hot does@jlo look!!!!! She will forever be my idol!!!!#BodyGoals”.
Oh, wasn’t I talking about a particular dress?