The actress Theda Bara — one of Hollywood's first ever sex symbols and femme fatales — starred in the title role of the 1917 silent film Cleopatra, wearing expensive and racy costumes that included a coiled snake bra that wrapped around her bare breasts. Censors required cuts of scenes that included Bara's "objectionable costume" and "costume exposing body." Sadly, most of the film is now lost because the last remaining prints were destroyed.
The dancer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker found fame in Paris in the 1920s. Her most iconic routine was the danse sauvage, in which she wore a skirt made out of artificial bananas and twerked before twerking was even a term. Audiences didn't know what to do with their feelings of attraction, fascination, and disgust. Baker's contemporary, the anthropologist Essie Robeson, called it "this ridiculously vulgar...wiggling." Ernest Hemingway remembered her as being "the most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will."
It's hard not to think of the Art Deco age and bias cut gowns without picturing this costume gown by Gilbert Adrian that Harlow wore in the film Dinner at Eight. It had a low back and beautiful criss-crossing straps in the front, and it looked like it had been poured right over Harlow's body. Fun fact: Harlow couldn't actually sit down in the dress because of the way it was cut so close to her figure.
Rita Hayworth wasn't yet known as the "Love Goddess" when she sat for this alluring image for LIFE Magazine in 1941. It became "arguably the single most famous and most frequently reproduced American pinup image ever" (that's according to LIFE, though I'm not going to disagree). She wore a lacy silk negligee — definitely inside clothes back then — and knelt on top of a bed in the photograph by Bob Landry. It was too risqué for the cover, according to someone who worked at LIFE at the time, but it was fine to run inside the magazine. More than five million copies of the image ended up in the hands of American troops fighting in World War II.
Marilyn Monroe wore her most famous white halter dress (with two pairs of underwear for safety) in the film The Seven Year Itch. "Ooh, do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn't it delicious?" she asks in the scene as the pleated skirt of her dress by costume designer William Travilla blows up. The scene was first shot on location in New York City, but thousands of onlookers were making so much noise that it had to be re-shot on a set. Monroe's then-husband Joe DiMaggio was on set during filming and was reportedly so upset by it that it caused the breakdown of the marriage.
There's a more famous photo than this from the same party in which Sophia Loren (pictured here on the left) gives Jayne Mansfield the stankiest side eye ever captured. Why the contempt? Mansfield had arrived in a dress that stole the spotlight, which was supposed to be on Loren that night. (The move was a publicity stunt; Mansfield knew that the dress would expose her boobs.) "Look at the picture," Loren recently told EW. "Where are my eyes? I'm staring at her nipples because I am afraid they are about to come onto my plate. In my face you can see the fear. I'm so frightened that everything in her dress is going to blow — BOOM! — and spill all over the table."
When Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, she wore the O.G. naked dress, a skin-tight column designed by Jean Louis that was covered in 2,500 rhinestones. The designer had to sew it onto the actress, who had specifically requested that the dress make her look "sparkling and naked," according to Hal Rubenstein. "I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way," Kennedy said after he took the stage.
Here's a closer look at the dress, which Monroe was still wearing when she hit up the after-party with President Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. The lore is that she skipped underwear for this dress. It might explain why the president isn't looking at the actress at all but keeping his eyes on the floor. The dress later sold at auction for $1.26 million.
Bianca Jagger (née Pérez-Mora Macias) was four months pregnant when she married Mick Jagger in St. Tropez, France, in 1971. She wore a white YSL Le Smoking jacket with nothing underneath, showing plenty of bride boob, and paired that with a long flowing skirt and a wide brim hat with a veil. A mob gathered outside the town hall, but Bianca cut a striking figure as she moved through the crowd.
In the fifth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore's character Mary Richards wears a green dress designed by a friend (a former prostitute). Upon seeing Mary in the revealing cutout dress, the live audience responded with shrieks and cheers. Mary's friend Ted Baxter says, "Get me a glass of water," because ~thirst~. Mary thinks it looks horrible, Ted thinks it looks fantastic. Whatever the case, the dress was certainly memorable.
The future Princess Diana was not yet engaged to Prince Charles when she posed for photos at Young England Kindergarten, where she was a nursery school assistant. She wasn't wearing a slip, and when the sun came out, her backlit skirt showed off her legs in a way that caused a scandal.
Diana — who was only 19 years old at the time — wore a strapless black taffeta gown by Emanuel to her first public outing with Prince Charles. Because it was strapless, Diana was photographed with her décolletage spilling out of the top when she was getting out of her car, and the public went nuts for Daring Di. "We hadn't considered the fact that when Diana bent over — as she would have to do when getting out of the car — she would show quite a lot of cleavage," wrote designer Elizabeth Emanual. "We just thought she looked fabulous."
Carrie Fisher would become a sex symbol after she wearing this copper bikini as Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi. It has had plenty of critics who say it is sexist, among other things, and "a bit of soft-core porn dropped in the middle of a kids' adventure story." Fisher herself has warned Star Wars actress Daisy Ridley against wearing any similar costumes. "You keep fighting against that slave outfit," Fisher told Ridley.
In 1984, Madonna was an up-and-coming artist and had the opportunity to perform "Like a Virgin" at the MTV Video Music Awards. She was wearing a white bustier top, opera-length lace gloves, and a belt that had the words "boy toy" on it. She writhed around on the floor, possibly flashed the audience, and caused a sensation. Her publicist Liz Rosenberg said, "People came up to me and told me her career was over before it started." People were wrong.
Cher wore this see-through Bob Mackie gown when she attended the Academy Awards in 1988. Before the show, there was much speculation about what she would wear. "You don't need to worry about sedate, Cher likes to whoop it up," Mackie teased. The sequined showgirl number became one of the most memorable Oscar dresses in history.
For her first red carpet with her then-boyfriend Richard Gere, supermodel Cindy Crawford dominated the red carpet at the Academy Awards. For her all-eyes-on-me moment, she wore a scarlet Versace halter dress that featured a low cut in the front ...
... and a high slit in the back. It was widely copied at the time and is now considered one of the most iconic red carpet dresses ever.
In one of the most famous scenes in Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone wears a sleeveless turtleneck dress made of winter white wool crepe. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick made a choice to clothe Stone's femme fatale in pale neutrals instead of dark, vampy colors. Stone famously crosses and uncrosses her legs in the white dress, exposing her uncovered genitalia. (The actress later claimed this happened without her knowledge.) The graphic sexual nature of the scene (and the film) led to protest and criticism.
No one knew who Elizabeth Hurley was when she wore a safety pin dress by Versace to accompany then-boyfriend Hugh Grant to the London premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral. By the next day, she was world-famous. Designer Gianni Versace said afterward that Hurley gave the dress all its sexy magic. "Liz has this intelligent face attached to that very naughty body," he said. "So seeing a woman like her in this gown is a guarantee that everyone would go pozzo [nuts]." For her part, Hurley doesn't quite get why the dress has so much power more than 20 years later. The public response to the dress was, for her, "a ludicrous surprise."
On the night of June 29, 1994, Prince Charles confessed on national television that he had cheated on Princess Diana during their marriage. (Though they had been separated since 1991, they were not yet divorced.) That very day, his estranged wife made a scheduled public appearance at London's Serpentine Gallery. She stepped out of her car wearing an off-the-shoulder bodycon mini dress with a sweetheart neckline designed by Christina Stambolia. Diana chose to wear the dress at the last minute; she had previously thought it indecent. It later became known as her "Revenge Dress."
Fact: Lizzie Gardiner won an Oscar in 1995 for Best Costume Design. Fact: Gardiner also designed this dress made of 254 expired American Express Gold cards. She originally created the dress for the film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but ultimately couldn't use it in the movie because American Express didn't approve. After Gardiner wore the dress to the Oscars though, AmEx bough dt the dress.
When it came to filming the music video for her debut single, "...Baby One More Time," Britney Spears had a great degree of creative input. She decided the story should follow a girl at school, and that she should wear that controversial midriff-baring uniform. "My idea originally was just jeans and T-shirts," the video's director Nigel Dick told MTV News. "We were at the wardrobe fitting and Britney holds up the jeans and T-shirts and says, 'Wouldn't I wear a schoolgirl outfit?'"
Along with David Duchovny, Jennifer Lopez presented the first award at the Grammys in 2000. She wore a sheer green silk chiffon dress by Versace that had been worn previously by model Amber Valletta and Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. But nobody wore it like Lopez. You could hear someone in the audience yell out, "Oh my god!" as people cheered appreciatively. "Well, Jennifer," Duchovny said, "this is the first time in five or six years that I'm sure that nobody is looking at me."
The dress was truly plunging; it went down past her belly button. The public had such an insatiable desire to see the dress that it launched a new technology. According to Google's Eric Schmidt, "At the time, it was the most popular search query we had ever seen. But we had no surefire way of getting users exactly what they wanted: JLo wearing that dress. Google Image Search was born."
Designed by Marjan Pejoski, this notorious dress featured a swan draped around the neck (with the swan's beak landing just at Björk's chest) and a tulle skirt. The dress was widely panned, but it represented the singer's "obsession" with swans at the time (she later wore the dress for the cover of her album Vespertine. Björk even "lay" ostrich eggs as she made her way down the red carpet. In 2015, the dress ended up in New York City's Museum of Modern Art as part of a retrospective on the singer's career.
The actor Jimmy Smits and singer Joe ogled Toni Braxton as they walked across the stage to present an award at the Grammys in 2001. "We are speechless," Smits said. The Richard Tyler dress had a panel going down the front and another going down the back, with a belt of sorts keeping the two panels together but leaving a large gap in between. "Things were up – the boobies were perkier, the cellulite was less," Braxton told People in 2014. "You got to do it when you're young. I think the funniest thing was 'Is she naked under there?' Like, what is she wearing under that?"
Gwyneth Paltrow herself called this unflattering look (but memorable precisely for this reason) a fashion faux pas. "There were a few issues; I still love the dress itself but I should have worn a bra and I should have just had simple beachy hair and less makeup. Then, it would have worked as I wanted it to – a little bit of punk at the Oscars."
Kate Middleton wore this dress when she participated in a charity fashion show as a student at St. Andrews. As the story goes, Prince William was in the audience and fell for Kate when he saw her walk down the runway in this transparent design by Charlotte Todd.
According to CNN, the size 8 dress started out as a skirt, and was made with two turquoise bands at either end of a column of knitted black-and-gold silk. The designer said she created the dress with "the art of seduction" in mind. "So, in a way, if that's what she wanted, she definitely bagged her prince, so it got her what she wanted."
Lara Flynn Boyle had recently broken up with Jack Nicholson and attended the Golden Globes as a newly single woman. She wore a rather ill-fitting ballerina dress designed by David Cardona, who used suede for the top and silk tulle for the skirt. "All the Europeans thought it was genius," Cardona told Yahoo! in 2014.
While you'd think that nothing could less interesting than a classic black sheath worn with a double-stranded pearl necklace, people somehow got really outraged over this Michael Kors dress that Michelle Obama wore for her first official portrait as first lady. The reason for the public indignation? The exposed arms. It wasn't the first time an American first lady had gone sleeveless, but there was something about Obama's toned biceps and firm shoulders. New York Times columnist Maureen Down put it this way: "Let's face it: The only bracing symbol of American strength right now is the image of Michelle Obama's sculpted biceps."
The meat dress, as it's now known, was the third outfit Lady Gaga wore at the VMAs in 2010. It didn't just look like meat, it was made with raw flank steak. The Franc Fernandez design (which also included a pair of meat shoes, a meat hat, and a meat purse as part of the ensemble) was later preserved and shown at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was apparently a statement against the U.S. military's policy of "Don't ask, don't tell." Gaga said this to Ellen Degeneres after the show: "As you know, I'm the most judgment-free human being on the Earth. It has many interpretations, but for me this evening it's [saying], 'If we don't stand up for what we believe in, if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones.'"
Venus Williams designed the black lace tennis dress she wore when she defeated Patty Schnyder while distracting everyone else with her revealing attire. Williams wore flesh-colored boy shorts underneath, which scandalized the public even more, but that was all part of the plan. "Like, you can wear lace, but what's the point of wearing lace when there's just black under?" she said. The illusion of just having bare skin is definitely, for me, a lot more beautiful.
When Kate Middleton married Prince William and went from being a commoner to the Duchess of Cambridge, Pippa Middleton tended to her sister as a bridesmaid, helping with Kate's nearly 9-foot-long satin train. Pippa's dress, designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, ended up nearly upstaging Kate because of the way it fit so snugly over Pippa's figure, specifically her bottom.
"I think the plan was not really for it to be a significant dress. Really just to sort of blend in with the train," Pippa said in 2014. "I suppose it's flattering, embarrassing, definitely. It wasn't planned."
Angelina Jolie is nothing if not committed. It was her insistence on this pose, pushing out her right leg through the high slit of her black Atelier Versace gown, that made the dress — or the image of her wearing it — go viral in 2012. She didn't just thrust on the red carpet, she brought it out when she presented the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. She was then gently mocked by one of the winners, writer Jim Rash. ("It was a loving tribute," he explained.)
The sheer side panels on Gwyneth Paltrow's Antonio Berardi gown exposed quite a lot of leg (and a hint of side crotch), and got her a lot of attention because of it. But it might be what she said about the experience after the fact that made the dress more interesting. "I kind of had a disaster. I was doing a show and I changed there and I went I couldn't wear underwear. I don't think I can tell this story on TV," Palrow said on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "Well, let's just say everyone went scrambling for a razor. I work a '70s vibe — you know what I mean?"
Amber Rose's revealing chain metal dress by Laurel DeWitt, which she wore to the VMAs in 2014, drew comparisons to Rose McGowan's VMAs look from 1998, and yet still managed to shock people. The NYC-based DeWitt is known for her custom creations. She told the Telegraph that "My theory behind it was to create spectacular one of a kind pieces that become so exclusive and can't be found anywhere else, so that the stylists come to me."
When Kim Kardashian broke the internet with her Paper Magazine cover shot by Jean-Paul Goude in 2014, she wore a glittering black strapless dress that was custom-made for the shoot. The cover image above is a reference to another one of Goude's famous photographs: Carolina Beaumont, New York, 1976. Many saw racism the inspiration image, but it wasn't to subdue the hysteria that resulted from the shoot, which featured Kim in various stages of undress. According to the magazine's editorial director Mickey Boardman, "It was her idea to take off her clothes and show more than her butt. We didn't say, 'Let's do a cover with your butt hanging out.' She said she was willing to take her clothes off, and one thing led to another ... history in the making."
In 2014, the news out of the Met Gala was all about Beyoncé and the elevator incident. For her return to the event the next year (with Jay Z by her side), Bey wore this sheer embellished Givenchy gown designed by Riccardo Tisci — possibly referencing a scene from Coming to America — and started a new conversation.