Back in 2001, Britney Spears wearing a pair of tiny hot pink bikini bottoms atop low-slung, metallic green flares felt revolutionary. The pop star’s outfit in the sweaty, sexy music video for “I’m a Slave 4 U” sent shock waves through pop culture.
As with all things Y2K, the exposed thong is once again back in fashion. But in the modern iteration of this 2000s style, instead of just showing off the straps, celebrities have been stepping out with their underwear completely visible. The trend started bubbling up at Saint Laurent’s spring 2023 show, where a third of the looks consisted of sheer or semi-sheer dresses worn with just a pair of briefs underneath. The influence of Miu Miu’s last few collections can also be felt, especially fall 2023, when the brand presciently sent Emma Corrin down the runway in a pair of fully bedazzled hot pants.
The craze has swept up everyone from more outlandish dressers, like Julia Fox, to haute couture fixtures such as Anya Taylor-Joy and Janelle Monáe. Dua Lipa celebrated the release of Barbie in a chain mail Bottega Veneta gown with only a pair of Hanky Pankys on underneath; Florence Pugh attended the Valentino show with her tighty-whities showing; and Irina Shayk hit the Cannes Film Festival in little more than a Gucci-branded bra and thong.
Lingerie supremacy didn’t happen overnight. According to fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, the trend has actually been decades in the making. “Once, a visible panty line, slip, or bra strap was a fashion faux pas,” she says. “It was scandalous when Madonna wore underwear as outerwear in the ’80s, or when Kate Moss wore a sheer dress over briefs in the ’90s.” However, “by the early 2000s, bra tops and visible thongs had become more mainstream.” Since then, she says, the public has only grown “more desensitized, which is why designers keep changing it up,” leading to the pointedly skin-baring fashions we’re seeing out there today.
Chrisman-Campbell chalks up the enduring appeal of this style among celebrities to the fact that “it’s eye candy, guaranteeing that the wearer will be noticed and photographed.” And getting attention—especially in the increasingly rapid churn of today’s media landscape—is everything. More than 20 years after Spears first writhed across our TV screens, the hunger for celebrity content has never been more acute, and it’s become difficult for even the most risqué fashion moments to break through all the digital noise. So in an attempt to crack the algorithm and dominate the news cycle, celebrities are wearing progressively racier garments to go viral, thus generating even more free press.
But according to Jessica Morgan, co-founder of celebrity fashion site Go Fug Yourself, these looks aren’t as impactful as they once were. “I truly think people do not find this shocking from a celebrity at all anymore,” she says. Wearing one of these barely-there dresses may offer diminishing returns in terms of clickbait, but the tactic can do wonders for a star in need of an image overhaul. “They can be a neat way to tweak your personal branding,” Morgan says. “If you’re thought of as being conservative, this is an easy way to upend that.”
Given the many PR advantages of this mode of dress, combined with people’s decreased outrage in response to it, we’re likely to see celebrity fashion get increasingly nude from here, Chrisman-Campbell says. Traditionally, “the pendulum cycles from naked to covered up, and then back,” she explains. However, in the last couple of years, we’ve instead seen more “highly embellished or structured versions of the naked dress,” which simultaneously embraces both trends.
And despite fully visible thongs being the toast of Tinseltown at the moment, Morgan doesn’t see these sheer dresses taking off outside of the A-list anytime soon. “Aren’t most of us just trying to keep our undies…you know, under?”
This story appears in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of ELLE.