We’ve all had this nightmare. One minute you’re snoring in flannel jammies, comfy under your 800-thread-count duvet. The next, you’re speaking in public in a lace negligee—or less. So. Awkward. It would be a good time to wake up, except this isn’t a dream. It’s a fashion trend. A major one. And it’s coming to stores near you.
You may not have missed Kourtney Kardashian’s wedding to Travis Barker in May. Very touching, those photos of her being fitted into her corset by none other than Domenico Dolce, one of Italy’s finest gown designers. But at the altar there was no gown. Kourtney tied the knot in her underwear.
Kendall Jenner wore skivvies (very pretty ones) the same month to a party following the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual costume gala. And Kim Kardashian these days shifts seamlessly from Balenciaga catsuits to her own wildly successful Skims label, which is valued at $3.2 billion. Lest we blame America’s first reality family for this fad, consider how many designers went all in on lingerie dressing in their fall 2022 collections. Are they tapping into a post-pandemic decadence in the culture, or are they returning to a well-worn staple of women’s wardrobes?
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The Roaring Twenties gave rise to the hemline index theory, which holds that skirts get shorter in boom times and longer during downturns. Fashion, meanwhile, has always known that exposing a bra strap is one styling move that has nothing to do with the state of your stock portfolio.
In a $1.5 trillion–a–year industry, brands are under pressure to grow those revenues every single year in a never-ending cycle of production and consumption. Executives seek to fill any unstuffed crevice in consumers’ closets. So hats (and shirts) off to designers for finding a category that may not be overpopulated in there: lingerie good enough to flaunt in public. It’s been several decades since the last time slip dresses were a truly major fad: the early 1990s, when Kate Moss practically lived in them.
During Milan’s most recent women’s runway week, nary a catwalk lacked for slips and nighties presented as daywear. It turns out that underwear hasn’t always been meant to be worn under. In fact, the term wasn’t even invented until 1872. “It’s a comparatively recent idea—like, 200 years,” says fashion historian Hilary Davidson.
Bodices, petticoats, and stays (later considered undergarments) were acceptable tops and skirts throughout the 17th century for all but the very wealthy, who were under more pressure. A painting of Marie Antoinette in a voluminous white muslin dress (the “chemise à la Reine”) was taken down because the not-silk dress was too risqué.
With the rise of the middle class in the 19th century, along with the dawn of inexpensive cotton, underwear disappeared under Victorian finery. Undies peeked out again briefly in the 1920s in the form of flapper dresses and evening pajamas. “They looked scandalously underdressed,” Davidson says.
Tides turned. By World War II it was considered taboo to even to let a bra strap slide down a shoulder. Then Vivienne Westwood turned fashion back to the 17th century with her 1980s bodice dresses, GenXers flashed the labels of their Calvin Klein briefs, and Patricia Field normalized the fallen bra strap with Sex and the City.
All of it requires great quantities of lace, mesh, gauze, and tulle, which should be of benefit to Sophie Hallette and other fine lacemakers. But the lingerie trend presents a dilemma for mortals whose latitudes may require a personal stylist or an Olympic medal in layering. Elyse Walker, whose luxury fashion stores cater to such celebrity clients as Cindy Crawford and Jennifer Garner, dismisses the notion with a shake of her tawny head.
“We didn’t buy it,” Walker says of her fall inventory, which is jacked instead with Bottega Veneta, Celine, and broad-shouldered Balenciaga. “I don’t think my ladies are going to a pickup, a carpool, or a board meeting in lingerie.”
But perhaps things are shifting for Generation Z. The sexy separates of Ludovic de Saint Sernin, who featured both Bella and Gigi Hadid in his fall show and whose Instagram fame has grown to 245,000 followers, have made him one of Paris’s hottest young designers. And in California, the titillating look-books by Venice Beach multi-hyphenate Eli Russell Linnetz—featuring hot pants and tighty-whities seemingly ripped from the pages of old Blueboy magazines—led him to an LVMH Prize, a collaboration with all-American provocateur Guess USA, and a high-profile and skin-baring men’s capsule collection for Christian Dior. Count ASAP Rocky among those unbothered by Linnetz’s libidinous designs—he gave Linnetz an especially coveted endorsement on the steps of the Met, though perhaps tellingly he chose a quilt coat.
Still, the musician’s girlfriend is doing more for innerwear-as-outerwear than Madonna ever did in her heyday, when all it took to scandalize the public was sing in a Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra. When Rihanna attended a Paris Dior show in nothing but a black mesh negligee, proudly showing off her baby bump, legions of fans (and the audience in attendance) did not clutch their pearls but applauded. Maybe this is because musty rules about propriety are being rewritten as we speak, not just by those with nothing to lose (and apparently not much to wear, either) but by confident women of all sizes relishing the freedom to put it all out there—every glorious, jiggly, middle-aged inch of skin, critics be damned.
But hey—my eyes are up here.
Photographs by Djeneba Aduayom
Styled by Dania Lucero Ortiz
Hair by Clay Nielsen for Leonor Greyl at Spoke & Weal. Makeup by Maki H for Gucci Beauty at BBA. Nails by Kayo Higuchi for Chanel Le Vernis. Set design by Chelsea Maruskin at Art Department. Model: Briggs Rudder at Supreme Management New York. Casting by Alicia Bridgewater for Castingbya.com
This story appears in the September 2022 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
Christina Binkley is an an award-winning journalist covering the business of culture and fashion and the author of Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas.