Lately, I’ve been thinking about the transparent dress Cher wore to the 1974 Met Gala, otherwise known as the “naked dress.”
The naked dress, as we know it today, is a sheer dress that reveals much of the body through thin, gauzy fabric. At least one naked dress makes an appearance at every Met Gala, but the concept was scarce before Cher. Her design was entirely see-through, with a feathery fringed skirt and sleeves, and gave the appearance of a second skin. It was made of souffle, a French material that was, at the time, outlawed in America, and had to be sprayed with a layer of applicant after being put onto Cher’s body. The result was a shocking, glimmering display of crystal beads pressed to the right places around Cher’s skin, and was perhaps the first culturally explosive example of a woman intentionally showing her nipples.
In a 2018 interview with The New Yorker, Bob Mackie, the designer of the naked dress, said he first met Cher while he was the costume designer for “The Carol Burnett Show.” Sonny Bono and Cher were to appear in a 1967 episode of the show and Mackie was tasked with dressing them. “Oh, no, what am I going to do with that girl?” he said of Cher. “In all the pictures of her, she’s kind of sullen. And she looks like she’s two heads taller than [Sonny].”
Indeed, the archival photographs I’ve been scrolling through of Cher reveal a distanced portrait of a dark-haired woman smoking cigarettes while walking through a crowd. She never smiled, and her stance and style spoke for themselves. The idea of “dressing” a woman that didn’t adhere to popular standards speaks to the timeless practice of watering down a woman’s presentation in order to fit convention. “She was so different from what people thought an American beauty should look like,” Mackie said in the interview. “It never occurred to her to wear anything ordinary.”
Mackie became Cher’s designer for the next few decades, and he didn’t water her down. Her wardrobe had problems — particularly the culturally appropriative moves she took during the “Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” years with embroidered ponchos, turquoise jewelry, and headdresses of Native American origin. She was also known for crop tops and bell bottoms, and for showing her breasts, her abdomen, and her thighs at a time when few women did — decisions that brought negative attention to her identity as a pop star.
The naked dress came in 1974, when Cher attended the Met Gala with her designer, Mackie. “I didn’t know it would cause such a hullabaloo,” Mackie said in the aforementioned interview.
But critics slammed Cher for her unapologetic display of her nipples. Why are Americans so ashamed of the female nipple? I don’t know. TIME Magazine put Cher in the naked dress on their 1975 cover, and newsstands either sold out of the issue immediately or banned it from being sold at all.
Cher went on to wear another naked dress to the Academy Awards in 1988, but this one covered more of her body than the original. Even in 2017, at age 71, she performed at the Billboard Music Awards in a ropey silver costume with a crystal heart sewn over her left nipple. People have always freaked over the fact that Cher never wore pasties to cover her breasts, something that she and Mackie supposedly laughed at for years. Because who cares?
I think I’ve been so enthralled with Cher and her style in the ‘70s lately because it marked the quiet beginning of her major cultural influence. Before she was the Goddess of Pop, she was Cherilyn Sarkisian, and her early photographs demonstrate the roots of the “free” woman we understand in pop culture today.
But the naked dress also poses questions that remain relevant to our ideas of the female body today. Why is it acceptable for some celebrities to show their nipples and not others — i.e., the iconic praise received by Kate Moss for her 1993 slip dress versus the slander Rihanna bore after her 2014 glittery display? Why are we still reprimanding the naked dress when it’s been popular for almost 40 years?
Ultimately, Americans are engaged in a constant battle against sexual fashion, but Cher breezed through this criticism in 1974 on the wings of her feathery naked sleeves. The naked dress will never go out of fashion, and neither will she.