Why Is Visible Underwear All Over the Red Carpet?

Photo credit: Kevin Mazur/MTV VMAs 2021 – Getty Images

Somewhere between her thigh and her rib cage, Megan Fox got tired of being a deeply underrated actress and turned herself into an icon instead.

Enlisting help from stylist Maeve Reilly, she stormed New York City in a series of barely-there looks by Mugler (at the VMAs), Peter Dundas and Revolve (at the Met Gala), and David Koma (on the streets of Manhattan). But unlike previous celebrities who’ve embraced the “naked dress”—Kate Moss in Dior circa 1993, Rose McGowan in Maja Hanson in 1998, Rihanna in a Swarovski net at the 2014 CFDA Awards—Fox has kept her bra and underwear as a visible part of her outfits.

Photo credit: Jay L. Clendenin – Getty Images

Issa Rae had an underwear moment last night, too, arriving at the Emmy Awards in a mesh dress with black briefs underneath. The previous week, Hailey Bieber appeared at the VMAs in a sheer white Alaïa dress with appliqué on the bust and a white brief-like detail around her hips. And both Zoë Kravitz and Kendall Jenner draped themselves in glittering crystals for naked-dress-plus-undies looks at the Met Gala the following day.

Photo credit: Bryan Bedder/MTV VMAs 2021 – Getty Images

Though these red-carpet looks leave little to the imagination, they are even more revealing about fashion right now. We’re living in a post-Victoria’s Secret moment, where designers are embracing lingerie as a way to make a statement. It’s not just about titillation; there seems to be some kind of message here about female identity—and our current push-pull between full transparency and filtered fame.

Photo credit: Taylor Hill – Getty Images

“What’s interesting about this trend is that it isn’t just fodder for the male gaze,” Cora Harrington, an underwear expert and the author who opines on underpinnings at The Lingerie Addict, notes. “The Met Gala is not being pitched to straight college guys who just want to look at girls! Mugler and Givenchy are not being pitched that way. What you’re seeing now is an individual female choice.”

Photo credit: ANGELA WEISS – Getty Images

Believe it or not, this choice may be backed up by science. One Danish study determined that women wear lingerie for “heightened feelings of control” in everyday life. Behavioral scientist Carolyn Mair confirms that “wearing nice quality underwear or lingerie sets boost our confidence and self-esteem … [and] feeling confident can make us appear more physically attractive because we tend to stand, walk, speak, and gesticulate differently.” (Of course, you’ll also move differently if you’re strapped into a custom-fit bustier to begin with. See: Billie Eilish in Oscar de la Renta, Irina Shayk in Moschino, and Lili Reinhart in Christian Siriano.)

The trend recasts lingerie as what the French philosopher Michel Foucault would call a “technology of the self”—outer objects we use to construct our inner world. For Fox, visible underwear is a way of saying that she knows she’s going to be sexualized anyway, so she might as well own it. “A woman who is intelligent and also knows how to weaponize her beauty … there’s nothing more dangerous than that. There’s nothing more powerful than that,” she told livestream cohost Keke Palmer on the Met Gala red carpet.

Photo credit: Mike Coppola – Getty Images

Of course, even though this take on underwear leans more into fa-shun than simply looking sexy, it still rewards the same patriarchal beauty standards that fashion claims it’s trying to unlace. “Women who are curvier often get called ‘tacky’ or ‘trashy’ for centering lingerie or underwear in their outfits,” Harrington says, “because the expectations that society puts on larger and curvier women’s bodies are unfortunately stricter. It shouldn’t be like that, but as soon as you’re showing fat rolls or your body isn’t an hourglass shape, it becomes somehow distasteful to certain people on the Internet.”

Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy/MG21 – Getty Images

On a practical level, the trend fits nicely into this moment of transition from work-from-home loungewear into a more public life. (Look at Vera Wang’s silk boxer shorts, Kate Hudson’s baby-pink Michael Kors bralette, or Alicia Keys’s red lace bra, which peeked out from one of Alber Elbaz’s vintage white shirts.) We could even turn visible undies into a metaphor for fame and social media, where “full transparency” is the goal—as long as it’s cinched and embroidered with invisible expertise. In which case, the interplay between Kim Kardashian’s and Kendall Jenner’s now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t outfits wasn’t just a great meme; it was a savvy commentary on their public and private selves.

Photo credit: Dimitrios Kambouris – Getty Images

And the numbers bear it out too. Underwear sales are skyrocketing, and designers are here to capitalize on that market. Which is why when everyone from K-pop star CL to runway queen Precious Lee had peekaboo moments in their paparazzi photos this month, it became clear that the look is here to stay.

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