Grin and Bare It: The Humor and Horror of Faux-Naked Fashion
It seems everyone is leaning into naked dressing. What does it mean?
From resale flurries over archival Comme Des Garçons t-shirts printed with bare torsos to celebrities like Aubrey O’Day sporting furry, merkin-adjacent bikinis on Instagram, the fake naked moment in fashion has hit the mainstream, as Emily Fitzpatrick of I <3 Mess noted over a year ago in a report on the trend of “aggressive sexuality” (i.e. “naked cosplay”) that first cropped up in celebrity stylings and has since trickled down to commercial ventures. The latest collection from Jean Paul Gaultier features pieces as graphically “nude” as garments can appear while covering the wearer’s actual genitalia.
There’s a robust history of fashion that seeks to pervert the ostensible function of clothes by replicating or referencing, in an uncanny way, the very erogenous zones it covers, from Gaultier's preceding "Naked Dress" in Bad Education to Argentine artist Nicola Costantino's Hannibal-esque "Human Furriery" sculptures, with titles cheekily claiming they’re made of “Masculine tits.”
What is the appeal of presenting a simulacrum of genitalia as you cover your actual genitals? A hefty sense of humor—brands like Fashion Brand Company lean into the humorous side of this strategic maneuver with pieces like the infamous nipple sweater—but I believe there's something more abject behind that—the desire to get ahead of others' objectification, and the power that may lend them, by preemptively objectifying oneself in a way that centers the grotesque nature of that action.
Artists and designers who embrace body horror as a style choice often delve into the abject, a concept explored by theorist Julia Kristeva. The abject is the disturbing space where boundaries blur, and the self is threatened by its proximity to the other. It's a defense mechanism that toes the line between sexuality and body horror.
The uncrowned king of body horror, Junji Ito, makes work that similarly explores the blurring of boundaries between the self and the other. Ito's narratives often involve characters facing a loss of control over their bodies or their environment, leading to a collapse of sexual boundaries. This loss of control results in a mingling of the self with the abhorrent, creating a space where what is considered normal becomes grotesque and repulsive. Ito’s Gyo explores the unsettling transformation of marine life into walking monstrosities.
The merging of the human and the repulsive within the narrative reflects Kristeva's notion of the abject, where the line between what is familiar and what is unthinkable is penetrated in a para-sexual way—these transformations and attachments, particularly involving the female characters, carry implicit themes of violation and loss of control over one’s own body. The way in which the infected creatures of Gyo attach themselves to the bodies of the other characters, often in suggestive manners or focusing on erogenous zones, associates itself with sexuality, violation, and a challenge to bodily autonomy. The horrific and the transgressive are indelibly associated with the erotic in the world of body horror.
Dressing transgressively to mimic nudity can also be interpreted through Georges Bataille's theory of expenditure, delving into the idea of humans’ excess energy seeking avenues for expression beyond the confines of utility or rationality. The act of dressing in clothing that simulates or references nudity represents a form of excessive expression, going beyond the utilitarian function of attire. It's a deliberate expenditure of cultural and social energy, challenging norms and boundaries surrounding modesty and societal expectations. These garments represent an indulgence in excess, a way to transgress the conventional and challenge societal norms by intentionally displaying what is conventionally concealed.
Moreover, this kind of dressing embodies a reversal of the typical function of clothing. Instead of clothing primarily serving to cover and protect the body, these garments serve as a form of expression, provocation, and assertion of individuality. This act embodies Bataille's idea of an excess that cannot be contained within the traditional boundaries of societal norms and utility.
It’s a defensive stance to display intimate body parts as a statement of apparent openness, communicating a message along the lines of, “I have no secrets to conceal. If this artificial representation causes revulsion, then my genuine nudity would be even more unsettling to you.” This feels akin to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface displaying the horror of his mental state so blatantly by wearing another person’s skin—the uncanny slippage, literal and figurative, of the mask against the “real” face creates a gap in which unexplainable discomfort in one’s own body and mind pour out.
People who partake in this “naked dressing” trend aren’t necessarily lacking self-confidence and certainly don’t have minds as muddled as a fictional serial killer's. But compared with the other recent trend of “naked dressing,” as in wearing an outfit so sheer or full of gaps as to essentially be going nude, a phenomenon that the fashion podcast COVERED, well, covered recently, the deliberate reconstruction of the body, whether cartoonish or hyperreal in nature, does seem to signal some kind of disconnect from one’s own form.
Many people take pleasure in that disconnect. The defiant nature: “You want to see my body? Well, I’ll give you this uncanny, slightly fucked up simulacrum of my body, are you happy now?” The broken promise of real sensuality: “You think because I’m dressed like this, you’ll get to see my actual body? As if.” The faux-rueful apology: “What you see isn’t really what you get, I guess.” Objectification becomes something belonging to the object, demanding attention and maybe even fear or intimidation on its own terms.
The act of naked dressing might be seen as a reflection of the need for individuals to discharge their excess energy, to find a release for what cannot be rationalized or confined within the limitations of everyday life. By presenting simulated nudity, individuals engage in a form of societal challenge where the 'waste' of norms and conventions is a symbolic act, embodying a confrontation with the abject, creating a space where boundaries blur and the self is both threatened by and in control of its proximity to the other. It's a peculiar juxtaposition—dressing in garments that mimic nudity while simultaneously creating a barrier between the self and the societal gaze. It's a celebration of the uncanny, the slightly warped, and the promise of eroticism made to be, with humor and horror, broken.