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The false empowerment of naked dresses

In May 2015, I wrote a blog for About-Face about Taylor Swift’s recently-released video for “Bad Blood.” In the post, I argued that the scantily clad women in the video were “devalued from being strong warriors to being traditionally sexy females with bodies that exist to be objectified.” I posted it to my personal social media pages, and a friend left a comment asking why being scantily clad couldn’t lead to “empowerment”. Honestly, I never answered her, but I was reminded of the question when I started recognizing a new trend: the naked dress.

Alden Wicker of Refinery29 describes the naked dress as “a long, sheer gown encrusted with just enough jewels, feathers, and embroidery to keep the X-rated bits out of view.” Its most famous recent wearers are Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, both of whom donned iterations of the dress at the Met Gala in 2015.

While I was reading about the trend, my first thought was, “Oh, great – another envelope to push, another dictation of style that keeps pushing women towards becoming just bodies.” No longer must women just be naked on a beach – now it’s acceptable, and on the verge of expected, to show off everything on a red carpet.

Furthermore, I felt continually disappointed that talented women like the aforementioned singers keep resorting to corporeal attention to make headlines. In many ways, it’s great that women are no longer restricted to nineteenth-century ankle-length skirts, but do we just keep pushing toward a world with no boundary of what’s acceptable to show? Will women always be encouraged to become more and more naked for others’ regular judgment?

Given my relatively conservative train of thought, I was surprised to learn that empowerment was repeatedly in the vocabulary of the bloggers covering the naked dress trend. Wicker argued that the trend is not oppressive because “the Naked Dress is only for A++ list celebrities … That’s why it is the ultimate power play. The woman in the Naked Dress is above reproach, outside the fashion rules that govern the rest of us … They love the benefits of being a woman and have dismissed the drawbacks of femininity — the social strictures, glass ceilings, and male gaze — as a non-concern.”

Hannah Weil McKinley wrote a piece for PopSugar about wearing a naked dress “IRL,” and called the experience “empowering,” explaining, “It held me in the right places, helping to define my waist and lift my chest. No, it wasn’t Jennifer Lopez’s body, but it was mine. It made me stand up straighter and walk a little more purposefully to see my body like that.” But then, in direct opposition to embracing her body (albeit a version that is more conformed to traditional standards of beauty), McKinley explained, “I was wearing something glamorous and dramatic — something so far out of my comfort zone it made me feel like someone else. Maybe I was Beyoncé — I didn’t care, I felt fierce.”

So what does this mean for my friend’s question of whether or not nudity can be empowering? It’s interesting that both Weil and McKinley describe the dress as empowering only for women who are already celebrated for their beauty, or for wearers who feel like someone who is already celebrated for her beauty. Tellingly, Wicker’s final point was, “You will never be expected, or have the opportunity, to wear a Naked Dress. And that is the most beautiful part about it.”

This does not lead to an answer of whether nudity in and of itself is empowering or not, but does indicate that we still live in a world where nudity is only viewed as empowered when the relevant body meets a certain standard. The fact that men are routinely seen as more empowered when fully clothed, particularly in a nice suit or uniform, also sheds a light of concern over what we expect of women. We should ask ourselves what we would do if the body in the naked dress were overweight, or disabled, or even aged (I suspect the blogosphere would categorize those women as “brave” for baring it all).

Viewing nearly-nude women on the red carpet or in music videos can’t give us a clean moral or philosophical answer over whether or not nudity is empowering, or just paves the way for objectification. It does, however, tell us that we still expect women to fit a certain physical bill, and perhaps that the perception of nudity as empowering means that we were placing too much emphasis on physical appearance in the first place.

Caitlin Lansing graduated from Princeton University in 2014, where she studied American women’s history with a focus on entertainment and beauty culture. A former college cheerleader and dancer, she is no stranger to body image issues, but hopes to use this to encourage women in their pursuits of self-confidence.

9 thoughts on “The false empowerment of naked dresses

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  1. Would we see men who were in public mostly naked as “empowered?”

    We mostly see them as perverts, and arrest them for indecent exposure.

    Even of they were movie stars at galas, empowered is not likely the first thing that would come to mind.

    I think your points are well made.

  2. i personally relate to the ’empowerment’ angle because i am from a conservative religious tradition that takes great and oppressive interest in what women are wearing, how much skin they are showing, what that might mean about their relationship with God, etc. i have a personal goal to wear a two-piece swimsuit and be comfortable in it, not because i have any interest in being scrutinized by men but because i want to shake that off. a two-piece symbolizes freedom to me. clothed or unclothed, women are scrutinized and judged, so i celebrate women who do what ‘they’ want in the face of it.

    is what ‘they’ want informed by a culture that already objectifies and sexualizes them? yes, definitely. and you point out some of those problems here. but no rebellion happens in a vacuum. a world where people could wear what they feel comfortable in and not face judgment for it would be a better world.

  3. And those words were spoken in a day when both men and women dressed very modestly and Paul s idea of modesty and discretion was the absence of gold, braided hair and expensive clothing. There is a growing hostility toward women that is erroneously based on the premise that covering them, keeping them out of visual range, etc.

  4. actually i think she looks beautiful and you do too
    im one of those people who really loves looking at sort of edges between things. Like i find androgynous looks beautiful, and men who look like women and vice versa very interesting, and i like to look at clothes which are so impractical to wear because they are art, but very beautiful. for me the naked dress is like looking at the boundary between being clothed and nakedness. i have a few myself which i wear with a nude minidress under and i love when people from a distance are seeing me and wondering.
    i feel like the design of this naked dress on you wasnt really suited to you because you dont look happy or comfortable in it at all. maybe if you chose a dress you really liked the design of you would be happier.

    i love the concept of how clothes are supposed to cover and these do and do not at the same time. its just so ambiguous and draws me to it as a concept. similar to a mystery i guess… anyway for reference i am 25 and a straight girl who has never been kissed. but i love unusual and daring things. for me it is nothing to do with sxuality, it is art and beauty showing the beautiful curves of a womanly form.

    honestly i thin boys see so many nekked women now they dont even care or see it as anthing to be oogled at. coming from an annoying muslim background i think it is great that women can go round without thinking that they are causing men to want to fek them and if they get raped it is their fault. the less women are required to cover up as a norm, the less men and women in that society think that they should cover up to prevent them being tempted and the less victims of rape are blamed. i hope that makes some sense, but for that reason i think modesty or trying to promote covering up of women is bad. because for me trying to make women cover is part of that victim blame mentality. maybe its just my background because for me the two concepts seem to always go hand in hand.

    (my sister wears a headscarf and i hate it because i feel it is part of the attitude women who wear less than that deserve to be raped because they tempt men)

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