Sparsely does a day go by without an email landing in my inbox predicting the next trend revival or reinvention. My Gmail is littered with subject lines declaring “Coastal Grandmother Aesthetic” or “Fairycore” the rising obsession. In truth, I find the whole cycle to be a tad repetitive and often fueled by brands and retailers just trying to find new ways to sell their product. There are, of course, caveats to this sentiment. One such fashion moment that feels part of a larger, longer lasting cultural conversation is the return of the bare midriff trend.
The sudden prevalence of exposed midsections shows no signs of changing soon, in no small part because it’s likely an expression that’s slowly emerged as we return to the real world after two years of mostly wearing sweatpants. Plus, this trend is not new: If you look back about two decades you’ll find the stomachs of ‘00s style icons Lindsay Lohan and Keira Knightley on full display. But there is a marked difference this time around with regards to both body positivity and age inclusivity, something that makes calling attention to this trend’s revival worthwhile.
Ahead, a fashion historian, trend analyst, boutique owner, and fashion psychologist all weigh in on the origins of this trend in the US, its place in fashion’s trend timeline, and possible explanations for why the look has thrust its way back into the spotlight.
The Bare Midriff’s Beginnings
“The history of the bare midriff goes hand-in-hand with the history of women’s sporting attire and sportswear,” Fashion Historian and Curator Michelle Finamore explains. As women increasingly participated in athletics and daily activities, there was a need for garments that were less restrictive. Trendalytics Content Manager Kristin Breakell agrees, adding, “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, midriffs were seen sparingly, but mostly associated with swimwear and beach attire.”
Beyond that, Finamore also points to Hollywood films as having a dramatic impact on the acceptability of the midriff-baring look. “One of my favorite movie creations is Adrian’s spectacular gold sequined dress for Joan Crawford in the last scene of the 1939 film The Women,” she says. “This was not the first peek-a-boo design he designed; he had also created a costume for the 1931 film Mata Hari.” This pre-Code (before the widespread adoption of new movie censorship guidelines in the mid 21st century) drama starring Greta Garbo was loosely based on the life of the film’s namesake exotic dancer and courtesan. “It was very typical in the early days of cinema to show more skin under the guise of ‘exoticism,’” Finamore explains.
From there, the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s sharpened the opinion that the bare midriff was a permanent fixture in the trend cycle. “This was a time when body-revealing styles had a resurgence, associated with the cultural changes brought by youth culture, the sexual revolution, and hippies. This was embodied in the graphic pop fashions with see-through cutouts by designers such as Courrèges, Cardin, and Rudi Gernreich (not to mention his topless bathing suit!).” Fast forwarding a couple of decades, the ‘90s and early aughts are when Breakell posits that the bare midriff gained mass popularity. “And now, with the return of Y2K styles, we’re seeing the bare midriff regain mass popularity,” she says.
Shedding The Pandemic Layers
You’ve probably read it dozens of times at this point — the pandemic (and social distancing and quarantine) resulted in a sort of Roaring Twenties reboot, with sexy dressing at the forefront. All of the experts I spoke with are in agreement that the last two years have triggered a desire for skin-baring fashion. “During the earlier stages of the pandemic, people were wearing sweats and couldn’t get out as much. Because of this, there is a hankering to show a little more skin,” Shop Le Point Founder Pauline Montupet explains. “From speaking to some of my younger customers who are dating and going out, they feel like they lost two years behind a computer and a mask; people are ready to wear sexier party clothes.”
Afterpay’s Fashion Psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell shares that this sexy dressing trend has evolved into what she calls “barely there clothing” for spring and summer. “Afterpay is seeing items with cut-outs selling out over 34% earlier this year in the US,” she says. “It’s the modern day version of the Roaring Twenties aesthetic that many predicted we would experience as we move through the pandemic. At the start of COVID-19, we saw people using their clothes as a tool for comfort, this has now progressed to people using clothes as a way to celebrate their bodies.” Breakell is also seeing this spike in these body-baring styles, with a 509% increase in average weekly searches for ‘low rise maxi skirt,’ a 379% increase for ‘low rise mini skirt,’ and a 185% increase for ‘low rise trousers’.
Designer & Celebrity Approval
Celebrities have played an instrumental part in the bare midriff’s shift from runway to street style, with perhaps the most publicized (and fabulous) examples coming from a certain pregnant musician. “I would be remiss not to mention Rihanna for bringing normality to this trend through her maternity looks,” Forbes-Bell says. The fashion psychologist also nods toward the recent Met Gala red carpet, with women like Emma Chamberlain, Selena Gomez, and Cara Delevingne all baring their midriffs (with the latter “really pushing the envelope on the ‘barely there’ look,” she adds). Other ‘it girls’ who have made this look feel ubiquitous include Bella Hadid, Zendaya, and Julia Fox.
On the designer forefront, Miu Miu is an obvious example of the bare midriff’s relevance. “The brand is enmeshed in the conversation about the bare midriff right now,” Breakell says. “Their viral spring/summer 2022 collection featured low rise micro mini skirts and sweaters cropped just below the bra line. If you’ve been on the internet in the past six months, it’s likely you’ve seen pieces from that collection — there’s an entire Instagram account dedicated to it.” Breakell also points to other designers like LaQuan Smith, Tom Ford, Blumarine, and Kim Shui as spearheading the stomach-bearing trend’s revival. “Beyond the runway, we’re seeing brands like I.AM.GIA, With Jean, and Praying embrace the reinvention of Y2K — and in turn, the bare midriff.”
A Shift Toward Inclusivity
All signs point to the bare midriff’s return — there’s not a lot to debate regarding that — but has anything changed since it was last a popular trend? “In the ‘90s and 2000s, the bare midriff trend was intrinsically linked to the thin bodies of those who wore it. As styles from that era come back into style, we’re seeing some of the same toxic body standards resurface,” Breakell says. In an article earlier this year, Refinery29 published an article titled “Who Is 2022’s Bare Midriff Trend For?” where writer Frances Solá-Santiago points out that despite this look flooding the zeitgeist, it is celebrated on very few plus-sized bodies and often unavailable in extended sizing. “The fashion industry is notoriously slow to adapt to changes in cultural sentiment; body diversity is still severely lacking on the runway and an inclusive size range is still seen as an exception rather than the norm,” Breakell says. “Thin people continue to lead the trends, and plus-size styles — although more prevalent in the market than they were 20 years ago — are often more modest.”
That said, Breakell does see glimmers of hope that things could be different this time around. “I think we’re seeing a shift in the right direction when it comes to inclusivity. As a collective, we’re more aware of the industry’s shortcomings and recognize the importance of inclusivity,” she says. “We’re starting to see a wider range of sizes represented on social media and conversations around fatphobia and body neutrality are becoming more mainstream.”
Forbes-Bell points to certain brands making this inclusivity a priority. “Yitty by Lizzo is a great example of a brand that’s breaking the size barrier, as well as Afterpay partner brand Skimms,” she says. And, of course, there’s that little magazine cover that made a huge splash. “Paloma Elsesser wearing Miu Miu on a recent cover of i-D is evidence that we are beginning to challenge the misconception that you need to be a certain size in order to engage with a trend,” Breakell says. “It offers a hopeful glimpse into a future where body size doesn’t dictate style.”
An Opportunity To Express & Celebrate
Ultimately, how you engage with the bare midriff look is entirely up to your personal taste and how you view the trend. “While research into the emotional impact of revealing clothing is limited, interestingly, survey data has revealed that those who spend time in the buff around others tend to be happier, more satisfied with their bodies and their lives overall,” Forbes-Bell says. “It all depends on your perspective. If you deem revealing clothing to be provocative and tied with objectification then the emotions conjured when wearing these clothes will likely be negative. However, if you consider the adoption of these styles to be a celebratory and expressive act, positive emotions will follow suit.”
If you fall into the latter camp, right now might feel like an especially poignant time to wear something that champions your body. “Consumers are gravitating toward styles that make them feel sexy and powerful and even more timely, the cultural conversation around women’s rights gives women reason to explore their autonomy and embrace styles that bring forth a sense of liberation,” Breakell says. And that goes for all women, not just those who are in their twenties or thirties. “I just turned 40 and I find it funny that I just now, in my forties after having a kid, have started feeling comfortable wearing something cropped showing midriff,” Montupet shares. “When I was younger and it was a trend, I felt too shy or that it was a trend reserved for only the very slim. Now it has become something we all want to wear and it can be styled so many different ways.”