Semi-transparent fabrics have their origins in the enactments of drama in theater. The earliest known see-through garments appeared in Ancient Egypt and India: at that time sheer linen that left the skin open to view was used to make the Ancient Egyptian embroidered kalasiris and colorful Indian sarees. See-throughs made from the so called 'tulle illusion' became widespread during the reign of Marie Antoinette.
In the 1960s, the see-through trend was backed up by the sexual revolution movement. The invention of plastics encouraged futurist-minded designers like Rudi Gernreich, Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin to explore semi-transparent sexually explicit designs. In the 1970s, the industry followed the lead of Jane Birkin and sheer mini dresses made their way into streets, while celebs clad in see-through tops were hanging out in the hot disco Studio 54 nightclub.
In the 1990s, it was not only grunge divas who sustained the public interest in transparent pieces. Alexander McQueen made a clever use of a sheet of polyethylene to create a tight fitting dress. Rei Kawakubo played with the idea of a bulbous cocoon of black lace. Even Jil Sander and Calvin Klein paid their homage to sheer fabrics by embedding them in formal office attires.
In the 2000s, the heyday of items whose every inch screamed luxury and oozed sexuality, see-throughs enjoyed particularly high demand. That said, the question remains how they manage to reinvent themselves when sex does not sell anymore.
The see-through trend is driven by a modern take on the sexual revolution movement and new femininity. There is a more functional aspect to it as well: breathing sheer clothing made of organza is comfortable to wear during summers: this is your legitimate way to go naked.
Today, it is also curious to see how this trend is migrating to men's wardrobes (think Cottweiler, Rick Owens) in just another attempt to provoke the cut and dried business of menswear fashion. Women's wardrobes favor multi-layered outfits made up of alternating transparent and opaque pieces (Molly Goddard, Christopher Kane, Off-White). The best solution is to wear see-throughs on top of maximum coverage lingerie (full briefs or bodysuits) or even regular clothes. Remember that see-throughs are trompe-l'œil clothes, so it is of utter importance what is actually put on or concealed behind them.
Sheer fabrics are explicit which makes them zeitgeisty. Read through the lens of cultural symbols, they are simultaneously loaded with connotations of nearness and distance, intimacy and its rejection. Semi-transparent garments do not flatter the body but accept it with all the shortcomings which are anything but a criminal offence. Such clothing does not conceal the body but highlights its natural beauty. Wearing see-throughs does not mean at all to look downright tacky.