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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Opinion | At the Met Gala, Celebrities Go Nearly Nude. (Yawn.)

BusinessOpinion | At the Met Gala, Celebrities Go Nearly Nude. (Yawn.)

Watching the red carpet at Monday night’s Met Gala, I couldn’t help but recall a prediction I’d heard from Emily Kirkpatrick, who writes the Substack newsletter “I <3 Mess.” She’d told me recently that, before the end of 2024, it’s possible that “someone is going to show up fully nude on a red carpet.”

That didn’t happen at this year’s gala, but it got very close, as Doja Cat — who appeared earlier this year at the Grammy Awards in what was called “the most naked dress ever” — presented at the Met Gala in a long, clinging, soaking wet, transparent and entirely revealing white T-shirt by the label Vetements.

Near-nudity is everywhere, at least on celebrities and the celebrity adjacent. Bianca Censori, Kanye West’s 29 year-old partner, wandered around Paris wearing a cropped jacket with sheer pantyhose and seemingly nothing on underneath, her modesty preserved only by the stockings’ single center seam. Julia Fox attended a fashion launch with three silver medallions covering her private parts under a long — and frequently parted — trench coat.

This nearly nude look is not, as one might imagine, evidence of an increasingly oversexed culture, but rather of a culture that’s increasingly over sex.

It seems we’re seeing more red-carpet skin at a moment when, for the first time in decades, America is quantifiably less randy, slouching through an era of undeniable sexual decline. Americans are having less sex, and the trend is most pronounced among young people, whose sexual activity has seriously waned. A 2021 U.C.L.A. study of California residents found that nearly 40 percent of the 18- to 30-year-olds it surveyed reported having no sexual partners in the prior year, up from 22 percent 10 years prior.

There are many theoretical explanations, from the addled overuse of phones and social media and the ubiquity of online porn to the fact that more young people live alone. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that one thing more people aren’t doing is doing it. And it’s probably not because people are masturbating more. Those numbers have remained relatively steady.

Among all this sexlessness, celebrities and attention seekers are stepping out in nearly nothing. Of course, skimpy outfits aren’t novel — nearly 25 years ago, Jennifer Lopez made red-carpet history in a Versace gown held on with body tape. But the new public nudity, rather than being an expression of an age-old desire to spark pleasure, feels like the product of a very new desire to drive engagement.

There’s always been a dance — often, a literal dance — between revealing skin and inciting arousal; titillation relies as much on what’s hidden as what’s revealed. But if the exposure of skin was once about performing for, or even powerfully co-opting, the problematic but omnipresent male gaze — think Marilyn Monroe’s billowing skirt over the sidewalk grate — the new public nudity is a bald attention play, enacted for the dispassionate gaze of paparazzi, who then feed these images to a desensitized public.

Maybe that’s why this new nudity has a strangely anhedonic feel to it; the outfits are technically revealing yet weirdly neutered. In the arms race for eyeballs, showing skin has been colonized by a desire for clicks, the only real currency in an attention economy. Nudity has finally been denuded of sex.

Some might see all this as progress or a sign of body positivity. But a notable aspect of the new sartorial nothingness is that no one seems to be enjoying it very much. In the Instagram comments sections underneath some of the more widely circulated photos of Ms. Censori, many commenters, seemingly from all genders, express exhaustion — less Wow! and more OK, just get some clothing, please. On the right-wing margins of the “trad wife” fringe, people have developed A.I.-based apps that specialize in putting clothing back on to photos of nearly naked women (disturbingly, it’s too often aprons). Even in the high fashion world — where visible breasts under a sheer shirt on a Parisian runway barely raise a ruffle — critics have become increasingly irritated at how a lack of coverage on a toned body is being substituted for well-cut clothes and actual style. Of a Saint Laurent show this winter, Vanessa Friedman of The Times noted plainly, “Enough with the boobs.”

I still agree with Ms. Kirkpatrick: A runway Lady Godiva is only a matter of time. But the beginnings of a backlash are possibly underway. Overall, the Met Gala seemed less nude than last year’s, as many of the most notable stars were so covered up as to be almost upholstered. Lil Nas X donned a silver bikini bottom at the gala last year; this year, he wore full-cut trousers and a long cocooning coat. Gigi Hadid, seen in a transparent bathing suit of a dress in 2023, this year wore a classically shaped Thom Browne frock that looked as if it were made of dozens of cricket-club blazers. Kim Kardashian wore a corset this year so cinched it looked perilous. But she also wore a sweater.

This collection of looks wasn’t exactly a triumph for bringing back the mystery. But at least it was, literally, not nothing.

Mireille Silcoff is a cultural critic and the author of the short story collection “Chez L’Arabe.”

Source photographs by Epoxydude, Francesco Carta fotografo and Kuzmik_A/Getty Images

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