Mesh Is In and Nipples Are Out

By Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

Recent trends and runway shows have shown that designers want us to flash the flesh. Myriad 2022 collections utilised sheer fabrics to show off some skin. This came as no surprise, the material dominated the noughties, and Y2K is that trend we can’t seem to escape.

Recent incarnations of mesh apparel have relied on the classic see-through fabric resembling nylon tights. However, this year’s fashion shows presented us with more fishnet-style mesh, and even some chainmail inspired pieces interspersed with layered tulle and a sprinkling of lace.

Backstage at Kim Shui SS22. Photo by Grace Isabella Antino.

On the runway and on the internet, a mesh outfit is mainly being seen paired with slinky, mesh opera gloves in a matching print. While not at all protective against viruses, the mesh opera glove has likely reared its head as a glamorous ode to the protective latex gloves we begrudgingly wore throughout 2020.

While the runway produced mesh in bold, bright, block colours and layered sheer pieces in neutral tones, in the real world, abstract prints, bold ’60s psychedelic patterns, and ’90s grunge dominate the mesh category. Considering this, it’s no surprise vintage mesh is more in demand than ever. Demand for items across the decades is soaring as shopping second-hand gains popularity, and many of 2022’s designs were inspired by vintage mesh, bringing the old back into style.

Jean Paul Gaultier’s mesh creations are particularly popular, and searching for one on resale sites feels like an impossible task, like panning for gold dust in your local park’s pond. Jean Paul Gaultier is responsible for countless iconic design moments over the span of his career and is widely celebrated as one of the greatest couturiers in the world. Among many unorthodox designs sent down his unconventional runways, the mesh tribal tattoo designs he first showed as part of his spring ’94 ‘Les Tatouages’ collection are some of his most iconic and sought after.

Leomie Anderson and Lancey Foux wearing Jean Paul Gautier.

The recently released, sold out, and re-stocked Missguided X Ed Hardy collaboration is another indication of the popularity of noughties-esque mesh. Ed Hardy clothing was a noughties staple and flitted in and out of style during the current Y2K revival without sticking around for too long. The designer’s tattoo-inspired graphic tees were worn by everyone from Kim Kardashian to Lil Wayne and can now be spotted most often on off-duty models like Bella Hadid. This year’s fast fashion collab, while controversial, has brought 90’s inspired mesh to the masses, with the majority of the collection favouring sheer fabrics for mini dresses and crop tops with opera glove-esque sleeves.

So, with your mesh outfit on, what are you wearing under it? Throughout the last popularisation of mesh, the go-to choice was a plain bralette or bandeau top. We were only dealing with mesh on our upper halves. We didn’t dare go much further, but now we’ve got to worry about our underwear as mesh dresses, skirts, and trousers come into play. Or do we? Designers don’t seem too fussed about using mesh items to promote fashionable underwear to us. Instead, they’re opting for comfortable, high-rise underwear that covers everything necessary and lets everything breathe against the constraining mesh. The juxtaposition of simple, relaxed underwear against couture mesh pieces creates an interesting visual.

With our comfy undies on, what about nipple protection? Well, we’re ditching it. Mesh is in, and nipples are out – quite literally. Breasts and nipples have been relatively common on the runway for some time now, and those of us off the runway have leant into trends like underbust corsets and harnesses more and more to proudly frame the bust. The next step is surely to free the bust from the confines of a bra.

Theophilio SS22 runway show in New York.

Besides hoicking and holding up one’s boobs, a bra also tends to hide the wearer’s nipples. To go sans bra is to accept that some nipple will be visible. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but for several stupid, long-standing gendered reasons, it still is.

Ten years post ‘Free the Nipple’, the body part has become increasingly polarising. Some see showing them off as wrong and promiscuous, mainly the UK tabloids, while others see them as a built-in fashion accessory. Whether it’s their outline being visible through an opaque fabric or being out on full show covered by something sheer, high fashion and high street fashion have embraced the nipple as added outfit decor.

Those who have freed the nipple tend not to need to cage it anyway and only wore bras thanks to sexist social conditioning. Boobs which are small, perky, and relatively unobtrusive, do not tend to require a bra for practical reasons, which means going braless, and somewhat pushing the boundary remains neatly within society’s general ideal of acceptability. Arguably, people with more petite boobs escape some of the objectification endured by those with larger breasts. This isn’t to say that backlash is completely avoided, but fitting into this particular beauty mould makes exposed nipples generally acceptable. It is a mould whereby a visible nipple is a bodily fact rather than anything incredibly daring.

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So while some nipples enjoy a general air of acceptability, others often don’t, and sometimes, no nipples are seen as acceptable. This was highlighted last month when adidas launched their polarising sports bra ad.

adidas’ latest sports bra ad.

The campaign, showing 25 different women’s bare breasts, illustrated the brand’s reasoning for creating 43 different bra styles – because no two breasts are the same. Some people celebrated adidas’ advert for desexualising breasts, while others called it exploitative and labelled it a shameless attention grab. Some Twitter users called the ad ‘unprofessional’, and others went as far as to call for a brand boycott. On all sides of the argument, the comments have shown we still can’t have rational conversations about female nudity.

Even those who appreciated the ad soon became angry when realising it would not be posted on Instagram due to the platform’s outdated stance on nudity – sorry, female nudity. The truth is, if Instagram’s rules were honestly against nudity, then it wouldn’t just censor female-presenting nipples. The rules promote an obvious double standard highlighting the platform’s binary and outdated approach to gender.

A nipple glimpsed beneath clothing could be read as a fierce refusal of propriety. To some, it may be a new kind of fashion statement, to others, it might simply be a body part. At the end of the day, boobs are just bits of tissue on your chest, hardly something to stir up so much fuss.

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