In 2022, underwear as outerwear was, quite literally, ubiquitous. Everywhere you looked on the spring 2023 runways, some version of lingerie-as-fashion could be found. Horror-chic heroines at Prada wore little babydoll nighties that looked as though they were ripped right from the 1960s. Burberry’s lithe, silky slips were ornately embellished—with both bras and underwear built-in. Versace redid Kinderwhore vamps with Courtney Love-esque underpinnings and thigh-high stockings. Even Tory Burch, who typically eschews the boudoir for the tennis court in her prep-forward designs, tried out the concept with the sheerest of shirts revealing the outline of bras.
This trend bears a complicated past, with a subtext that plunges deeper into fashion history than even Miu Miu’s low-rise micro-mini skirts. Fashion’s focus on the body is ever-evolving—and underwear-as-outerwear is simply its latest manifestation. Following years of bodycon trends—with brands like KNWLS, Ottolinger, and Mugler pushing the limits of skintight silhouettes—and fresh takes on naked dresses, the logical next step appears to be: the visible undergarment.
The Jenner sisters test-drive their own takes on underwear as outerwear.
Despite underwear as outerwear prevailing in mainstream culture for decades, it is still a relatively new idea within the fashion industry. “The concept of underwear-as-outerwear is most commonly associated with the 1980s, but the look of lingerie has long served as inspiration for fashion garments,” according to the Museum at FIT’s Exposed: A History of Lingerie exhibition from 2014. The exhibition showcased how, among other examples, a 1950s Claire McCardell evening gown resembled a nylon nightgown by the lingerie brand Iris.
Even before the mid century, clothing that resembled underwear existed. Take, for example, the codpiece, created in 1463 in England—when Edward IV’s parliament made it mandatory for men to wear a cover over the clothing on their genitalia. In the late 1400s, corsets were created, though they were strictly worn (and laced) underneath clothing. Perhaps the most famous example of underwear as outerwear in art history is Vigée Le Brun’s 1783 portrait of Marie Antoinette wearing a muslin chemise—a shocking move at the time.
By the 1920s, scandalous flapper dresses resembled teddies. The next big revolution? The corset, which was reinterpreted as a daring piece to be worn on its own, by Vivienne Westwood in the 1970s—and in the 1980s, as sculptural pieces by Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, and Mr. Pearl.
But most people didn’t start wearing actual underwear in public until a pivotal cultural moment occurred. “It was only in the mid 20th century that wearing underwear as outerwear became normative,” says the fashion historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox. An unexpected example: The t-shirt, which became a closet staple in the 1950s. “It used to be worn as underwear under a dress shirt, but Marlon Brando, James Dean, and other Hollywood actors made it part of the youth rebellion,” Rabinovitch-Fox adds. “In that shift from underwear to outerwear, the t-shirt also moved from being a masculine wear to unisex. This is significant, as underwear is often very gendered, so by making it visible, you can also change its gender association.”
In the 1990s, the boundaries of underwear as outerwear were pushed even further. Madonna’s iconic cone bra, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier and worn during her Blond Ambition tour, was a cultural reset. Whale tails were born out of the 1990s, with both Jean Paul Gaultier’s and Tom Ford’s Gucci spring 1997 runway shows putting thongs and buttock-baring looks on full display. The trend went on to gain widespread traction in the early 2000s. Around the same time, boxer underwear peeked over the tops of baggy, sagging jeans—a trend many credit as having originated in the prison system, where belts are forbidden. Although it’s rarely discussed as much as women’s underwear-as-outerwear in fashion history and theory, its influence has undoubtedly been just as impactful.
Why has fashion been flirting with tight, revealing silhouettes at this very moment? Historians think the trend may actually be tied to the post-pandemic world. “Similar things happened in the 1920s, after the flu pandemic of 1918, when clothing became light and loose, almost wanting to discard heavy fashions that can be health hazards and make it difficult to breathe,” says Rabinovitch-Fox. “It [could be] an unconscious way to break free from Covid.” Elsewhere, the trend is an extension of many other popular looks. Born out of bodycon (and later, balletcore), emerging designers are getting inspired by traditional dancewear, making sheer, underwear-like pieces designed to be worn as everyday clothing—with an inclusive edge. For example, Find Me Now recently launched a second skin collection of colorful, cozy layering pieces up to a size 2XL. “People are more expressive about being comfortable in their bodies, no matter what stage they’re in,” says Find Me Now co-founder, Stephanie Callahan.
A whole new obsession with underwear as outerwear is also being modeled by TikTok’s maximalist generation, which often layers the looks in eccentric ways. Take, for example, Sara Camposarcone, who wears burger-shaped bras with ties and baggy shorts, and panties layered over airbrush dresses for a trip to her local café. Then there’s TinyJewishGirl, who styled a custom loincloth over clown-printed tights, or multiple sequined briefs over a kaleidoscope of bright tights. The videos she shoots in these looks rack up views to the tune of over 1.6 million.
Still, there are undoubtedly two sides of this trend: for every trompe l’oeil naked dress and burger bra, there are just as many public figures who seem to be using the trend to body check—like Kim Kardashian, who forced herself into Marilyn Monroe’s dress and proudly claimed to lose 16 pounds for the moment. Underwear as outerwear can still very much represent the commodification and objectification of the female form. “It goes back to the body standards of the aughts, which are hyper-slim and unrealistic,” adds stylist Shea Daspin. “The media’s obsession with the body is concerning, no matter if it’s curves or lack thereof. A naked dress is essentially an extension of the body. It will lay exactly as your body is built, which, for celebrities, tends toward objectively attractive bodies that are slim and toned.”
But Vaquera, with its infamous lingerie t-shirt, and Jean Paul Gaultier, which recently reissued its Cyber collection, lend the underwear-as-outerwear look a kooky essence. Bloomers, associated with the American newspaper editor and suffragette Amelia Bloomer, were once an undergarment that stood for sartorial liberation in the mid-1800s. Today, they’re being worn as pants all over TikTok, and even reinterpreted by some of fashion’s most avant-garde designers such as Noir Kei Ninomiya. Maximalist takes on layering underwear and puffy bloomers don’t feel inherently sexy—but it’s impossible not to celebrate wearing underwear as outerwear in 2022 without questioning all that it encompasses. Today, exposed underwear represents a newfound expression of ornamentation, a release from the global pandemic, and our culture’s obsession with body checking.