What’s Behind Fashion’s Rediscovery of the Bare Midriff?

IN EVERY ERA, a bombshell emerges. Marilyn Monroe helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In the ’90s, Pamela Anderson became a symbol of the internet’s pornographic potential. And at the beginning of 2022, we got Julia Fox.

The “Uncut Gems” actress was catapulted from Lower East Side infamy onto the world stage after meeting Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, on New Year’s Eve in Miami. Although their romance lasted not much longer than a month, Fox used that time in the tabloids to cement her reputation as a downtown style icon, showing up with Ye to the Kenzo show in Paris during men’s fashion week, both in head-to-toe denim outfits — hers including a midriff-baring Schiaparelli jacket with trompe l’oeil conical breast details that recalled the famous Jean Paul Gaultier look worn by Madonna in 1990. Fox was also photographed in New York in black pants by the Los Angeles-based label Miaou, worn low enough on the hips to reveal the built-in thong. And in a picture taken by Juergen Teller for a cover of The Cut’s spring fashion issue, she posed supine on a mound of dirty gray snow in a patent leather crop top and coat by Alexander Wang, her arms outstretched as if to imply crucifixion. A pinup for these troubled times, indeed.

Even if they didn’t know it, designers had been preparing for Fox’s arrival. In April of last year, coinciding with the rise of the coronavirus’s Delta variant, the industry website The Business of Fashion declared, “Sex Is Back. Are Consumers Ready?” In October, just before the worldwide spread of Omicron, The Guardian told readers to ditch their cozy, protective layers — “it’s the return of sexy dressing.” When asked to explain the inspiration behind his spring 2022 collection for Maison Margiela, John Galliano spelled it out: “S-E-X.” While the big news stories continued to look terrifying, elsewhere there were reports on provocative new clothes — as if ecological crises, international conflicts and inflation were not, in fact, causes for mortal dread but just the aphrodisiacs we needed to shake us from the boredom of existential security.

BUT FASHION DOESN’T really sell sex; like Fox, a former dominatrix, it sells something much more powerful. It tempts us, especially in times of collective turmoil, with the promise of confidence, courage and liberation, all of which are inherently sexy. Ironically, in trying to package that feeling, designers have recently reintroduced a particularly vulnerable band of the human body: the midriff.

Unlike some of the other invariable signifiers of sexiness, a person’s middle is wrapped up, if it’s wrapped up at all, in control. In a book of the same name accompanying “Waist Not,” a 1994 fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York that considered the shifting silhouette of women’s dressing and its relationship to politics and gender, the curators Richard Martin and Harold Koda note that the area between the upper ledge of the pelvis and the bottom ribs is “the only section of the vertebral column without the protection of bones.” Which is to say that our core — home to our instincts, our butterflies and, at times, our children — is one of the few places where we can determine the shape of things. By showing it, we are engaging in a radical act of announcing ownership of our bodies.

That same year — which also marked the passing of the Violence Against Women Act, the country’s first law acknowledging domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes — the journalist Suzy Menkes wrote, in an article for The New York Times titled “Naked Came the Midriff,” that what was “once the preserve of belly dancers and bikini wearers” had “become a significant trend.” She observed that the unencumbered waist often re-emerges, as a point of conversation and to punctuate a silhouette, in moments when women are fighting for new rights, or to keep the ones they already have. Indeed, around the time that the social reformer Margaret Sanger created the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control in Chicago in 1929 — amid yawps that contraceptive information was obscene — the French designer Madeleine Vionnet, to whom the bare midriff in fashion is often attributed, debuted a brazen silk chiffon evening dress that left the wearer’s midsection uncovered. When the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960 — which was criticized as embodying state-sanctioned immorality — the youthquake-era designer Mary Quant chose bright miniskirts and exposed waists over the prevailing postwar austerity.

Today, as we see a major return of midriffs (this time on men as well as women), it’s likely no coincidence that abortion rights seem as precarious as they did before the advent of Roe v. Wade. At Miu Miu, Miuccia Prada sent out a parade of models in business-very-casual button-downs, abbreviated cashmere sweaters and frayed micro-miniskirts so short they revealed the pocket linings under the hem. (At her family’s namesake line, Silvia Venturini Fendi delivered a wry male alternative, with shorts and chopped-off, abs-exposing suit jackets in muted yellows or greens.) Elsewhere, whether it was Coperni’s bandeaus with frills or psychedelic prints, Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Gen Z-courting floral bralettes for Valentino or Tom Ford’s unbuttoned sparkly shirts knotted at the navel, the message was one of release. The emerging designers Maximilian Davis and LaQuan Smith harnessed the bold sex appeal of the torso with, respectively, a swimwear-inspired collection of self-described pose wear, and a twisted, stomach-baring dress made from slinky cotton.

What these offerings underlined is that clothing reflects not just the way we live today but also the way we hope we might someday live. As much as this procession of bare midriffs was a form of immediate wish fulfillment in a time of isolation, uncertainty and protective layers, it was, too, an invocation for the future — an attempt to manifest, by exposing one of our most defenseless, most provocative zones, a future in which we might once again let our guards down and see our bodies not as vessels for disease or targets for injustice but as sources of power.

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