Oh, what a little skin can do.
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."
Jean Harlow, the original Blonde Bombshell, was hugely popular in 1930s Pre-Code Hollywood and liked to do this thing where she wore really clingy dresses without a bra (the horror!). Here she is with Clark Gable, her co-star in Red Dust.
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.
"I've tried just acting, but sex sells at the box office," said the actress Carroll Baker, who wore this Pierre Balmain dress to the U.S. and London premieres of her 1964 film The Carpetbaggers. Pictured here in London outside the Plaza Theatre, Baker shows off the provocative transparent top of the dress. The crowd gathered outside the theater reportedly caused a near riot trying to get a peek.
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.
Cher collaborated on many indelible looks with the designer Bob Mackie, but this is one that really got people talking—and wanting a copy for themselves. She first wore this feathery naked dress to the Metropolitan Museum in 1974, then again on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1975. "When Cher was on the cover of Time, in her see-through dress, every tired old broad in Hollywood called asking me for one just like it," Mackie said in 2014. Kim Kardashian paid homage to Cher's dress when she attended the Met Gala four decades later.
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.
A 19-year-old Kate Moss wore a silver slip dress by Liza Bruce to an Elite Models party in London in 1993. It remains one of Moss's most famous looks because it was, as the BBC called it, "startlingly sheer." There was no bra involved, just panties. But Moss might not have intended to provoke. "Underwear as outerwear was the mood of the moment," Bruce told the Daily Mail. 'The dress did come out more transparent in the picture (than in reality), which is maybe why she had the confidence to wear it...It wasn't a come-on...it was just 'this is me.' Her body language was so much like a kid's."
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?'"
Jaws dropped when Rose McGowan arrived at the MTV VMAs in 1998 wearing a see-through beaded dress that exposed her bare breasts and butt (she was wearing a G-string, so some parts remained unseen).
Diana Ross walked on stage at the VMAs in 1999 and gave Lil Kim's exposed boob a love jiggle, after which Lil Kim said, "Oh my god!" But it was the one-shouldered lavender pantsuit — with matching nipple pastie — designed by Lil Kim's stylist that gave everyone else a shock. The look was so unforgettable it entered Halloween territory, with Miley Cyrus dressing up in a Lil Kim costume in 2013. Lil Kim approved: "The purple pasty with the purple hair is something that kids love, women love, and men love and people all over the world loved. When people give you that compliment on Halloween, it's huge."
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."