The new sheer: dreamy, not steamy
In the story of the emperor’s new clothes, two weavers trick a vain ruler into parading through his kingdom wearing a suit they claim is invisible to the unworthy — until a child points out that the emperor is actually naked. I can’t help wondering what Hans Christian Andersen would have made of Diane Kruger and Gwen Stefani, who attended last month’s Vanity Fair Oscar party in barely there gowns that made it clear they’d given their underwear the night off.
Such “naked dresses” — little more than mesh, filmy georgette or silk chiffon sprinkled with beading or embroidery — have given the sheer trend a racy reputation. But designers such as Miuccia Prada, Raf Simons, Dries Van Noten, Tory Burch and Rebecca Taylor have come up with an entirely new way to do peekaboo that doesn’t require buns (or nerves) of steel: sheer gossamer pieces — a top, skirt or dress — in white or pastel shades are layered over clothing you’re meant to see, albeit indistinctly, for a softfocus glimpse at colours, patterns and textures.
Sheers have always mesmerised the fashion faithful, concealing and revealing at the same time. Marie Antoinette wore machine-made net, an economical alternative to handmade lace. In the romantic era, long, billowing over-sleeves of aeroplane — a translucent silk — added grace and mystery to short-sleeved gowns. The lingerie dresses of the Edwardian age had lace inserts, transparent sleeves and tissue-thin layers of linen — the same materials used in undergarments. And the “nude” look of the mid-1960s brought strategically embellished dresses with sequins or bands of ribbon; many women coped by wearing flesh-coloured body-stockings.
In the past two years, seductive styles increasingly became more titillating, offering prurient glimps- es of skin through sheer sleeves, veiled backs and panels circling the waist or floating at the hem. But designers began to tire of the tease: The fleshy exposure of decolletage and thighs started to feel Vegas strip, not haute-couture house.
So this year sheers have reclaimed their elegance, romance and even modesty. Unlike the Victorian-nightgown-inspired dresses that also walked the runways for the northern spring, these new outfits look modern, even futuristic. At Prada, transparent jackets, shirts, coats and dresses topped brilliantly coloured and patterned garments, softening the boxy silhouettes and cartoon-bright hues. The theme continued at Miu Miu, where apron-like see-through wrap tops and negligee-style dresses tempered the bold prints and severe tailoring. In his last collection for Dior, Simons layered a multicoloured sheer fabric over garments for a watercolour effect. Subtle rather than sexy, the parchment-thin veil draws the eye to the shifting gradients of hue, not the body beneath. Simons also did white-on-white layers that looked pretty and pristine. Other designers like how transparent textiles give them some artistic licence to play with strong colours and bold prints. John Patrick, the designer at Organic, draped gauzy slips over rich, opaque hued dresses for a “dreamlike” effect.
Designer Rebecca Taylor did the opposite, adding textures like crocheted lace, appliqued motifs and Japanese shibori prints to her silk sheers, then layering them over solid pieces to heighten those embellishments.
Just how you pull off the look relies on what lies beneath: the garment below must have dimension and texture. In other words, it should be clear that it’s a piece of clothing, not a slip or lingerie you have on. It’s an easy way to refresh last season’s dark floral blouse or way-too-vivid top, too: slide a sheer T-shirt from Cos or Zara over them — and revel in the feeling that what’s old is now renewed.
A sheer creation by Dries Van Noten on the Paris runway, left; the Rochas ready-to-wear show, also in Paris, below