Celebratory post-quarantine dressing, body inclusivity, wardrobe versatility — when it comes to the staying power of sheer, the forces behind it are multifaceted. The look has been championed by the likes of Prada, Dior, Staud, and Dries Van Noten for back-to-back seasons, a herculean feat in the blistering fashion trend cycle that bucks off “aesthetics” faster than an untamed mustang. Still, with so many supernova trends out there, see-through styles have endured as a go-to straight through the latest Spring/Summer 2024 collections that debuted on the runways this fall.
“We’ve been tracking sheers on the runways as a key look for a few seasons now,” explains Emily Gordon-Smith, the content director and sustainability lead at Stylus, a trend forecasting company. “Nineties and ‘00s nostalgia for layering and underwear dressing has been having a huge impact, but also this shift towards more decorative and playful fabrics has certainly represented an antidote to the comfort-led pragmatic dressing we all relied on in lockdowns.”
Sheer stormed the runway in the ‘90s, with brands such as Calvin Klein, Prada, and Versace heralding the look as a closet must-have. In some cases, nods to these looks can still be detected in contemporary collections, too. Just a hop, skip, and jump after its last reign, rumblings of a sheer takeover began in the Fall 2016 collections by Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and Lanvin. By Spring 2017, it was a catwalk mainstay. Designers like (the sadly now defunct) Christopher Kane, Molly Goddard, Erdem, and Simone Rocha all flocked to the look, reimagining it from flirty cut-outs to quirky layers.
Fast forward to Spring 2024 and the style is just as prescient, if not more. “Transparent fabrics are one of the key material messages so it’s not going away anytime soon,” Gordon-Smith emphasizes.
Notably, Mother Incarnate Miuccia Prada unfurled floaty sheer sheath dresses in muted saccharine colors that offset reticent frocks energized with fringe hems. The lineup, in sum, appeared to be a dissertation on the female urge to hibernate in some dark academia novel where shorts can never be too short and floaty, frothed-up dresses are rife for daydreaming in the sanctity of a library’s dusty window.
“The Prada show was full of delicately layered sheers and this demure effect of creating a soft look without baring all is highly commercial,” notes Gordon-Smith. “We can see that resonating with women of all ages.”
Elsewhere this just-past runway season, collections for Undercover, Carven, Saint Laurent, Mugler, and Alessandra Rich delivered sheer in an assortment of articulations: lingerie, whimsical, sophisticated. There was seemingly something for everyone — peek-a-boo materials lend themselves to ongoing exploration.
It’s this versatility that’s cemented sheer as a favorite among fashion insiders. “The level of craftsmanship and styling played a key role in making sheer an impactful trend for Spring 2024,” says Astrid Boutrot, the women’s buying and fashion director at The Webster. “Designers are approaching the trend in such an evolved way.”
Shopbop fashion director Caroline Maguire calls out Phillip Lim’s latest show as one such inspiring use of translucent materials. “It played with sheer neutrals and brights in a variety of silhouettes, contrasting beautifully with the more structured styles and fabrics within the collection,” she says. “I also love how Sandy Liang incorporated sheer fabrics into her playful designs without making them too kitschy. And the draping and sheer factor at Christopher Esber adds an air of sexiness without being too provocative.”
Boutrot also enjoyed Christopher Esber’s collection, in addition to “Khaite's superfine silk skirt, Aläia’s latex high-waisted skirt, [and] Givenchy's ultra-chic sophisticated collection that displayed an array of sheer romantic dresses to suggestive tops paired with powerful coat silhouettes,” she says.
Maguire and Boutrot each note that shoppers outside of the rarified fashion industry bubble are gobbling up all things see-through, too. “[Shopbop] sees some shoppers gravitating towards more traditional styles that incorporate sheer fabrics in a subtle way like the Pleated Georgette Shirt Dress from GANNI with its sheer sleeves, or the Skivy Knit Top by Cult Gaia that puts a sheer twist on a simple silhouette,” Maguire reports. “[Other shoppers] are opting for the more updated classic pieces that play with collar, bows, and lettuce hems.”
For those who frequent The Webster, sheer is a constant fan favorite. “With our roots in Miami, our client has always loved a sheer moment, specifically in the mini and party dress direction, such as pieces from Di Petsa, whose signature wet look is a favorite,” explains Boutrot. “However, with the current shift, we also see our clients transitioning towards a more refined aesthetic; they are also gravitating towards brands like Diotima, whose crystal mesh pieces can be worn as a set or paired with a mesh skirt with a crisp oversized poplin button-up.”
If the Spring 2024 collections proved anything, it’s that sheer can be adapted to match a range of personal tastes. “It’s a trend that can be easily transformed into something more digestible that will resonate with the masses,” says Maguire. “Something sheer doesn’t always need to be extravagant or overly provocative, it can be as simple as a sheer sleeve or cuff.”
Perhaps further whetting shoppers’ appetite for subtly skin-baring pieces is that they can be worn by anyone interested, no matter their age. “Sheer is also translating with older demographics,” asserts Gordon-Smith. “Sheer tops over vests and camis plus transparent slips over tees and jeans have made a comeback and makes sense for women who want to add some fashion interest to an otherwise basic look.” On the other hand, she continues, Gen Z is leaning into the underwear-inspired vibe that sheer lends itself to so well.
Is sheer the great generational unifier? Maybe (but probably not). Still, with big names like Zendaya, Florence Pugh, Ciara, Beyoncé, and Jamie Lee Curtis donning translucent looks with the material on the red carpet and stage, it certainly seems like there might be something bigger afoot, contributing to its thundering appeal.
Fashion designers have the privilege — and challenge — to mirror current consumer attitudes while keeping an eye on future cultural movements that might impact how we dress, and the statement we wish our outfits to make. The return of sheer paces closely with the rise in fourth-wave feminism. For example, back in 2016, when sheer interpretations were marinating in some of the industry’s leading imaginations, the reckoning over unattainable beauty ideals and body positivity was storming social media. That year, Ashley Graham was the first plus-size model to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Around the same time, the U.S. president-elect openly bragged about groping women — and would later be found liable of sexual abuse. Women around the world marched in January 2017, a month before the Fall/Winter 2017 shows, to show solidarity and strength against systemic injustice. The #MeToo movement was in the wings waiting to take flight. By October 2017, Alyssa Milano would post a tweet encouraging women to come forward if they’d experienced sexual harassment, assault, or discrimination. The rest is viral hashtag history.
None of this informed or forced designers to incorporate sheer into their collections, but good design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, either. When zooming out, the use of it can seem to examine the authority and autonomy a woman has over her body.
“We also see [sheer] as a moment of empowerment, women celebrating their bodies and showcasing them in all their beauty. Casey Cadwaller at Mugler, a trailblazer for this, has made this a part of the brand's signature style,” said Boutrot.
Sheer can be used as a tool for physical reclamation, choosing what and how to reveal. It can also liven up a stale wardrobe — perhaps those things aren’t as divergent as they might seem. A woman dressing for herself and expressing joy as she does so can be viewed as an act of rebellion, in some cases. In the face of ongoing scrutiny over a woman’s ownership of her body, choosing when to show off your boobs or cute bra or lower back — wherever you want — can feel like taking back an iota of power that’s been robbed. It’s subverting the male gaze.
“[The popularity of sheer] is definitely a response to quarantine dressing but women wanting to dress for themselves and seeing more inclusive and diverse imagery of females of all shapes and sizes celebrating their bodies is having a lasting impact,” says Gordon-Smith. “This is a good thing and represents more than a passing fashion trend.”