Suddenly, everyone is wearing itty-bitty underwear in lieu of the pants that once were. At least on the runways. For fall 2023, Miu Miu sent out brainy, librarian-chic models wearing a collection that mused on normcore, plus a slew of final looks wholeheartedly devoted to beaded, sequined briefs worn bare or layered on top of off-kilter hued tights in chartreuse and brick red. “If I were younger, I would go out in panties!” gushed Miuccia Prada herself post-show. At Christian Siriano and Prabal Gurung, capes, polka dot blouses, and tailored tuxedo blazers were cemented with humble black underwear and nothing else. Sergio Hudson opted for a monochromatic moment with a tailored neon yellow blazer styled with matching bottoms, and Puppets and Puppets showed body chains and rosebuds over black tights with visible undies.
But fashion’s new foray into pantlessness goes beyond what we formerly knew as underwear-as-outerwear and lingerie dressing. It’s not the whale tale, nor is it a micro short or hot pants—it’s something more subversive, shocking, and extreme; perhaps just the absurdist jolt we need when everyone is talking about stealth wealth and quiet luxury. The pantless redux kicked off last season, during the spring 2023 shows, as Bottega Veneta showed black tights, briefs, and a navy blue sweater, which Kendall Jenner was quick to wear out in the wild.
Underwear in place of pants isn’t entirely new. At the onset of the indie sleaze era around a decade ago, Lady Gaga made wearing high-cut briefs her signature, onstage and while running errands in New York City. “I feel freer in underwear, and I hate fucking pants,” she once said. Beyonce also solidified the “no pants” look on tour. But even before that, women like Tina Turner and Josephine Baker were wearing costumes that evoked intimate little nothings. This is a look that is intrinsically tied to performers. “Showing underwear for the lower part of the body is extremely radical,” says Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Of course, it’s much easier if you’re a performer onstage and there are bodyguards around, because it is a very overt form of display.”
In the ’60s, style icons like Edie Sedgwick wore black tights and underthings as a statement of boldness. But Steele says the look as we know it today is most closely associated with the ’90s. Vivienne Westwood spearheaded the underwear-as-outerwear look, and may be one of the best examples of the trend showing up on the runway decades ago. Consider her fall 1989 collection, which featured a bodysuit with a perspex fig leaf at the crotch area. There was also her Cut, Slash & Pull ensemble, from 1990, featuring a scarlet pair of faux fur-trimmed underwear with a detachable ruched silk codpiece. And who could forget Carla Bruni walking down Vivienne Westwood’s 1994 runway in a thick fur coat, revealing a matching pair of chunky fur undies? Or Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw famously walking—and falling—on the runway in bejeweled Dolce & Gabbana underwear on Sex and the City? Likewise, Alexander McQueen, Chanel, and Jean Paul Gaultier revered the brief-as-pants on the runway in the mid ’90s. “So much of fashion has been about attention between covering and exposing parts of the body, but that specific area has mostly been left out of the geography of exposure because it’s the most taboo,” says Steele.
But why now? The past few seasons echoed an obsessive sentiment for the micro miniskirt by Miu Miu. Shortly after that, the brand showed micro shorts. The next logical step is underwear. Also, fashion’s been in the midst of a ballet love affair for the past few years, with designers taking inspiration from ballerina uniforms, leotards, and costumes alike. Edie Sedgwick herself studied jazz ballet, hence her go-to ensemble of black tights paired with polos, simple sweaters, ginormous earrings, and little else.
And as for whether we’ll be seeing more and more people wearing the look in real life? Steele compares it to the rise of the normalcy of wearing a bra in public, whether it’s a sports bra or one that’s subtly revealed under a shirt or blazer. “The bra exposure became quite normalized, partly by being incorporated into sportswear,” she says. “Another way it could become popular is through aestheticized body exposure at private parties. You may not wear the look out on the street, but if you’re at a party with like-minded people, then everybody understands. But if it raises eyebrows when it’s on the runway, we’ll see how many of them actually sell,” adds Steele.
Pantless people may slowly infiltrate a sidewalk near you before you even know it. Char Workroom has gained a cult following for its high-cut cheeky shorts, launched in 2020, which go up to a size 3X. The super-short metallic ruffled hot pants resemble underwear in the best way possible. “Char is very much a brand inspired by our climate in Houston,” says designer Tacharra Perry. Both Rosalía and Flo Milli have worn them too. “We’ve definitely tried to break up with this style for a while, but the demand is still very much there, which has caused us to restock again. I think that’s because it’s still super flattering without showing too much, and it’s also just fun.” Her fans have styled them with tights, dresses, and trench coats.
Others are also testing out going pantless in the wild, like stylist and personal shopper Mary Higham, who was inspired by her friend, blogger Sarah Chiwaya. “I love a little old-school burlesque moment,” says Higham. “I received a lot of positive feedback and women sharing that they appreciated my confidence. In the same vein, there were a lot of people who just didn’t get it, or felt it was too much. Fashion is so personal, so not everyone will love every choice.” Her best styling tip for this one? “Confidence is the key with a trend like this. Own it proudly, strut your way down the sidewalk and allow your confidence to be the best way to accessorize it.”
Kristen Bateman is a contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Her first fashion article was published in Vogue Italia during her junior year of high school. Since then, she has interned and contributed to WWD, Glamour, Lucky, i-D, Marie Claire and more. She created and writes the #ChicEats column and covers fashion and culture for Bazaar. When not writing, she follows the latest runway collections, dyes her hair to match her mood, and practices her Italian in hopes of scoring 90% off Prada at the Tuscan outlets. She loves vintage shopping, dessert and cats.