X-Ray Dress

AKA: sheer dress, see-through dress

How to say it: eks-rey dres

Traditional Features: 

X-ray Dress

  • made from sheer or see-through fabric
  • can have strategically placed pieces of fabric to maintain modesty or can be worn with a slip
  • any shape and length

21st Century X-Ray Dresses

There are plenty of options on the modern marketplace for the girl who wants to go see-through – whether its the full-monty or just a little peekaboo window here and there to keep everyone guessing, the range of x-ray dresses available in the 21st century means there is something for everyone and every occasion.

Ann Demeulemeester Forever 21

Ann Demeulemeester, Forever 21

Sonia by Sonia Rykiel Valentino

Sonia by Sonia Rykiel, Valentino


…of the style: See-thru fabric is not a new invention (although the advances in fabric technology over the years has definitely made it more accessible) and has been used in clothing since 3000 BC, when they were used for Indian saris.

In the 5th century BC the Ancient Greeks wore the Ionic Chiton, which was a garment made of finely woven wool, linen or silk and was often transparent. However, the chiton consisted of many pleats and folds, so the wearer’s body was not exposed as is so often associated with sheer fabrics.

The chemise, worn under dresses by women in the 18th century, was often made from muslin that was fine enough to be see-thru, and in the 1780s Marie Antoinette introduced the Chemise a la Reine – an informal gown of sorts, constructed from many layers of sheer muslin and belted around the middle, which initially caused quite a stir, but was quickly adopted by the fashionable women of France and England. While the original Chemise a la Reine gown was not overly transparent due to the number of layers of fabric, by 1784 the fashionable women of Paris had taken to wearing a more revealing and see-through version of the style. In the 1790s the Chemise a la Reine style had evolved into a look that was described as “a la Sauvage”, which consisted of a semi-sheer muslin dress over a nude body stocking, leaving the arms, feet and bust all but uncovered; thus making public nudity a common, and fashionable, occurrence. These semi-sheer chemises turned into neoclassical gowns of the beginning of the 19th century. The short-waisted gowns were made from muslin, or other sheer fabrics, and had skirts that clung to the body leaving very little to the imagination.

The trend of using sheer or see-through fabrics in women’s clothing continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but as the trend for public nudity died away, linings were added under the  sheer fabrics to conserve the wearer’s modesty. The ‘peekaboo waist’ blouse (made from broderie anglaise) caused a stir in the first decade of the 20th century, as people complained that skin could be seen through the gaps in the fabric, the 1920s brought the sheer silk stocking, and in the 1950s chiffon and organza were popular fabrics in eveningwear (although always used with a lining).

It wasn’t until the 1960s that sheer clothing resurfaced as a trend in modern fashion. In 1967 Missoni asked models to remove their bras as the fabric of the undergarments could be seen through the knit fabrics the clothes were made from. Once on the show began, the lights on the catwalk somehow made the clothes go completely see-through, exposing the now bare-breasted models to the audience. Luckily the fashion patrons of Florence did not seem phased by the extra skin and by the following year Yves Saint Laurent presented the see-through look in Paris, as did Ossie Clark in London.

The transparent trend continued through the 1970s to an extent before rising once more to the height of fashion in the celebrity-influenced 1980s. Stars like Madonna, Cindy Crawford and Brooke Shields were all spotted wearing see-through garments and the look was copied by fashionistas everywhere. This is where the modern x-ray or see-through clothing really came into being, and women’s fashion featured dresses of various styles made from sheer fabrics like lace, mesh and chiffon.

The trend fell out of favour in the 1990s but has recently been revived on the 21st century catwalks; sheer fabrics resurfaced in designer collections in 2007 and have stayed there ever since. Celebrities continue to be big fans of the see-through dress, using it as a means to get noticed and generally not wearing very much underneath (like Rihanna at the CFDA awards). While these dresses are often worn for their shock value, they are certainly keeping the see-through look alive, as the celebrity obsessed public scramble for look-alike dresses in which to emulate their favourite starlet.

Mainstream x-ray dresses in the 21st century range from fully see-through garments that are (usually) worn with a nude slip or body stocking, to dresses made from sheer fabrics and featuring strategically placed embroideries, appliqués or fabric strips that conserve the modesty of the wearer (sometimes only just) and leave the onlooker wondering about the forbidden fruit underneath. Sweet, girly dresses made from all-over lace with attached slips are also popular and are less sexy and more feminine that other styles on the market.

…of the name: Dresses made from sheer or see-though fabrics allow onlookers to see the wearers body underneath the garment. Much like an x-ray.

For more info on X-Ray dresses try Wikipedia, Fashion Diary or check out the Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion

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