When was the last time a classic anxiety dream became the next big thing in fashion? Leaving the house without pants on is a nightmare trope so culturally ingrained that it has shown up in countless films, TV shows, Reddit threads, and comic strips. Depending on whom you ask or which online forum you go digging in, dreaming of going pantsless is interpreted as a reflection of shame, vulnerability, new beginnings, a lack of boundaries, or indecisiveness. But in fashion, at least these days, it’s the new frontier of chic. Leave it to Sigmund Freud, writing in the late 1800s, to sum up our brave new era: “In a dream in which one is naked or scantily clad in the presence of strangers, it sometimes happens that one is not in the least ashamed of one’s condition.”
Over the past few years, there has been an increasing number of celebrities hitting the streets sans pantalons. Last November, Kendall Jenner wore a crewneck sweater with black briefs, black tights, and pointed heels—a Bottega Veneta runway look that took on new significance on a city sidewalk. A few months earlier, Bella Hadid had grabbed a slice of pizza in a pair of men’s “tighty-whities,” with a motorcycle jacket thrown on top. Hailey Bieber has frequently donned oversize leather jackets, blazers, and hoodies with bare or sheer-stockinged legs. After Kylie Jenner attended a Loewe show in a set of logo-emblazoned white underwear peeking out from beneath a gray overcoat, the New York Post dispatched a reporter to wander Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a copycat outfit—a bit of gonzo stunt journalism—in an attempt to figure out if this trend had any, well, legs.
On the fall 2023 runways, designers took the idea and ran with it: Marni went for a crisp, barely bum-covering white shirt and a diaphanous sweater coupled with knee socks and penny loafers—evoking a schoolgirl who, instead of hemming or rolling a too-long skirt to her liking, simply disposed of it altogether. Coperni and Prada did cropped cape coats with sheer tights. At Ferragamo, tailored briefs and hot pants were paired with matching suit jackets and oversize knits to almost businesslike effect. Dolce & Gabbana transformed a double-breasted silk lapel tuxedo jacket into a thigh-revealing bodysuit. At Miu Miu, models wore briefs (some encrusted with crystals, others in plain cotton) with prim turtlenecks, floral cardigans, or layered ensembles of gray hooded sweatshirts and peacoats.
To state the obvious, this is not fashion for the faint of heart—nor is it particularly easy to pull off. But it does, in some ways, feel like an inevitable development. The bra top has become so widespread that it’s utterly mundane. Whale tails are passé. Hemlines and waistlines have been heightened and lowered, respectively, to their absolute limits. (See: Miu Miu’s viral spring 2022 miniskirt.) Exposed underwear beneath sheer garments, once seen as stylishly subversive, has given way to nipples so thoroughly freed that you can practically hear the scribes at the Daily Mail yawning every time a starlet steps out braless in a mesh top. We have pushed every other envelope. The exposed brief is the only remaining fashion Rubicon.
But it does feel truly out-there, in a way that none of the above phenomena did. I asked the fashion historian Lydia Edwards, author of How to Read a Dress, why. “We have been used to seeing bared breasts and low décolletage throughout history,” she told me. “The same is not true of the lower half of the body; we are accustomed to seeing swimwear, but that is in a very specific context and carries with it certain expectations.” Back in 1951, in the book The History of Underclothes, the historians C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington wrote that “it has not seldom happened that a particular garment, long submerged, has eventually risen to the surface, becoming, in fact, an integral part of the visible costume…. An undergarment rising to the surface draws attention to that region; the motive may be erotic, or it may be merely an escape from bondage.”
The most successful no-pants ensembles eschew eroticism in favor of breezy practicality; they have a matter-of-factness to them that seems to say: To be pants-free is to be carefree. But there’s a fine line. The stylist Dani Michelle, who is responsible for Bieber’s and Kendall Jenner’s leggy looks, put it this way: “You have to have a bottom that feels purposeful. It can’t be ‘She forgot’ or ‘Has she gone too far?’ It has to be a style, a moment, a statement.” But if we’re not trying to seduce, what type of bondage could we be escaping? The tyranny of “hard pants,” as nonstretch trousers came to be known during the pandemic’s sweatpants-and-spandex era? A vestige of Victorian prudery that demands legs be at least partially concealed? The brutal body-shaming standards of recent decades? Perhaps it’s a combination of all of it. To fully and truly shed the nightmarish anxiety of exposure and the weight of the past, we must embrace an unexpected new direction.
It might be tempting to point to the miniskirt and hot pants as the forebears of this nascent trend, but the best example might actually be pants themselves. Trousers for women were once considered scandalous. “The taboo against clothing that revealed or even suggested a woman’s legs was so complete that women wearing loose-fitting trousers became a popular sexual fetish, known in the trade as ‘bifurcation,’ ” wrote Richard Thompson Ford in his 2021 book, Dress Codes. “In 1903, the men’s magazine Vanity Fair (unrelated to the current magazine of the same name) ran a special issue titled ‘Bifurcated Girls’ that featured photos of provocatively posed young women dressed in trousers.”
Of course, it went deeper than that—pants also allowed women to do things that they couldn’t do in dresses, like riding bicycles or working jobs that required a wider range of motion. Even bloomers, which to a modern eye seem as sexy as a wadded up bolt of fabric, were controversial in the 1850s. Favored by doctors, suffragists, and reformers, they were closely related to the burgeoning women’s rights movement.
This combination of titillation over and distaste for trousers prevailed for decades. Even in the fashionably liberated 1960s, some old-school strongholds remained, including the Manhattan restaurant La Côte Basque, whose policy stated, “Pants look very nice on some women but they do not belong in a restaurant any more than swimming suits.” In 1968, the socialite and sartorial legend Nan Kempner attempted to dine there in an Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking suit. After being turned away by the maître d’, Kempner returned without the bottom half, passing the blazer off as a minidress, and proceeded to enjoy her meal.
Today anyone attempting to enter a stuffy French restaurant wearing a blazer and nothing else might actually be forced to come back with pants on. But time marches forward, and what was once unimaginable becomes unremarkable before we can quite make sense of what’s happening. Just as no one would bat an eye at a slipdress worn to a black-tie affair, it might be only a few years until you see a colleague wearing bejeweled briefs in the office. What’s nightmarish about leaving the house without pants on isn’t the lack of pants, as our friend Freud pointed out. It’s the fear, shame, and judgment. What this new trend seems to ask is: What happens if we just do without those pesky interlopers? Once the shock subsides, the feeling of freedom settles in.
Hair by Edward Lampley for Oribe at CLM; Makeup by Susie Sobol for Sobol Inc. at PM Artists; Models: Santha at Women Management; Jordan Daniels, Tess Carter, Yasmin Wijnaldum at The Society Management; Casting by DM Casting; Lighting director: Eduardo Silva; Fashion assistants: Tyler VanVranken, India Reed; Hair assistants: Ben Gasper, Sol Rodriguez; Makeup assistants: Yanni Peña, Aya Iwakami; Special Thanks to Gallaghers Steakhouse NY.