At Jean Paul Gaultier's recent fashion show in L.A., model-for-a-night Billy Idol dropped his pants and mooned the audience. Madonna, who was the show's grand finale, was not about to be outdone. She sashayed to the end of the runway, opened her coat with a flourish and displayed her bare breasts.
Three years ago this might have been a very special moment between Madonna and her audience. But was there a single fan who had not yet seen the Blonde One's bosom? Or, for that matter, her bottom? In the October issue of Vanity Fair, she shows both.
Lately, nudity has become so common--onstage, on fashion runways and in the clubs--that little shock value remains.
Last year, at the MTV awards show, Prince wore a yellow spangled jumpsuit that bared his buttocks to the breeze. His choice of attire was the big news of the evening.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers have appeared on stage nearly naked, except for strategically placed socks. Axl Rose used to strut his stuff in a leather codpiece and chaps.
During this year's MTV awards abrasive radio personality Howard Stern bared his backside.
In fact, there is so little bang left in being buck naked that some of the founding fathers of flesh shows have moved on to other looks. The Red Hot Chili Peppers now wear street clothes, clown costumes and white jockey shorts. Axl Rose has moved on to a Gap/locker-room look, with sleeveless plaid shirts and sweat shorts.
What's going on here?
"We use nudity to create a trademark or image," says Susan Kaiser, professor at UC Davis and author of "Social Psychology of Clothing." It takes more to shock us now than it did in the past. But shock is used to get attention, she says.
"Look at fashion advertising. Benetton, Espirit, and Cross Colours are using controversial political or social statements to get attention. But that is not possible onstage. So it comes down to the performance and what it takes to make an impression--and sex themes are what we are seeing."
In the past, fashion designers used nudity to make statements about something other than being nude. Rudi Gernreich created his topless swimsuit as a political statement for the women's liberation movement. Gernreich also advocated sheer blouses, to be worn with or without lingerie. Other designers use nudity for theatrical purposes. When Yves Saint Laurent showed bare breasts under sheer blouses a few years ago, he said he was not advocating that women actually wear them without bras or camisoles, he just wanted to emphasize the sheerness of the fabric.
Now if a model walks down the runway exposing her breasts or bottom, the designer more than likely had exactly that in mind. In the past year, Thierry Mugler and Anna Sui have sent models down the ramp in chaps and G-strings. Jean Paul Gaultier has shown backless dresses and topless jumpsuits.
Gemma Kahng designed the cheek-revealing lavender jumpsuit with ruffle-edged porthole Madonna wears in Vanity Fair. It was not from Kahng's regular line, but specially made for the Madonna shoot. "I don't think I could sell more than one of those," says Kahng. Nor will the look turn up in any future designs.
"I definitely think things are becoming more daring. But I cannot confuse my customers," says Kahng. "They are ladies, and if I showed them that, they would be confused."
The designer versions of dressed-but-naked may not be setting sales records, but they are beginning to show up in Sunset Boulevard clubs and on the street.
"I am starting to see a lot of body parts," notes L.A. designer Maggie Barry. "People with tattoos are cutting out their jeans to show their tattoos. Rock 'n' roll girls wear chaps with G-strings in the clubs.
"People don't seem to be scared of bottoms," says Barry. "Just last week I saw a girl propped up on the back of one of those ninja motorcycles. She was wearing a miniskirt and a thong and it was, well, an eye-opening combination. I've even seen girls in Gold's Gym wearing thongs with fishnet hose instead of tights."
Peek-a-boo clothes are nothing new to Barry. She makes a lot of Cher's stage wardrobe where exposure is de rigueur. For her Van Buren line for fall she sewed clear vinyl portholes onto the hips of pants. She also included a pair of sequined star pasties with each pair of pants, her suggestion of what-to-wear-with.
Exposure is not limited to the West Coast, says Kahng, even though the bodies here are better than those she sees in Manhattan. But that doesn't stop the New York club crawlers from going bare on the bottom and showing decolletage that is almost indecent.
Of course, the look Barry says, is not meant for everyone. It's for a very taut and toned few, under 25, to be worn after 5, at the clubs.
"I think it's a fad for a very limited group of people," agrees Mary Stephens, chairman of Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing's design department.
"Over the last three decades we have seen more and more of it, so we are not shocked any more. But it is a big-city phenomenon."
Living in L.A., she says, exposes people to extreme clothing styles that the rest of the country never sees. The boundaries of what we consider extreme are much loser than they are elsewhere.
Stephens predicts the groundswell for going bottomless or topless will remain an underground club fad: "Out on the farms, they will never wear their chaps without jeans."