From geishas to Flappers, a timeless allure: Why nothing’s as subtly sexy as going backless – and for less busty girls they are a surefire way to wow
- Lisa Hilton says the golden age of backless was Hollywood in its heyday
- Lady Alice Manners says backless style is an elegant way to make an impression
- Claire Coleman shares advice for a beautiful back to embrace the trend
- UK-based writers take inspiration from Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, Zendaya
From geishas to Flappers, a timeless allure
By Lisa Hilton
Dramatic, daring, disarmingly demure. The backless dress is a fashion chameleon. From Jean Harlow sizzling in white satin in the 1930s to Spider-Man star Zendaya’s sexy spine outfit, backless dresses have retained their glamour for nearly a century, turning their wearers from prim to jaw-droppingly sexy in a turn of the shoulder.
I’ve always loved a backless number; a black Miu Miu A-line with a deep cutout V; a delicate Ralph Lauren silk with almost invisible coral bead straps; or a fabulously swishy (and frankly shameless) Ashish confection in turquoise sequins dipping almost scandalously low.
Backless feels sexy without being effortful; it doesn’t need elaborate jewellery or even heels, just a simple updo and your skin will do the talking.
Lisa Hilton says backless dresses have retained their glamour for nearly a century, turning their wearers from prim to jaw-droppingly sexy in a turn of the shoulder. Pictured: Flappers in the Roaring Twenties
Cleavage can be great if you feel like flaunting it, but backless is much less obviously attention-seeking. That is, until you turn round.
In the 17th century, Diego Velazquez risked the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition to paint the Rokeby Venus, a full-length nude seen only from behind, yet in Western culture, erotic attention has traditionally been centred on the breasts. In Japan, however, the nape of a woman’s neck and the upper back were long considered the most alluring part of the female body.
The sensual prints depicting the ‘floating world’ of geisha culture also celebrated the back, particularly the two hollows at the base of the spine. In ancient Kyoto, geishas were trained in the art of elegantly revealing their backs beneath ornate kimonos, yet the back as an erogenous zone didn’t emerge in Europe until the 20th century.
When Coco Chanel launched her ‘little black dress’ on the cover of Vogue in 1926, she revolutionised the way women dressed; fussy, top-heavy Edwardian clothes were rejected in favour of a simple, streamlined silhouette which felt ineffably fresh and modern.
The flappers of the Twenties strove for a neat, androgynous line which often involved binding the breasts, leaving the back to shimmy into focus.
Lisa claims the golden age of backless was Hollywood in its heyday, despite film studios’ strictures on bare flesh. Pictured left: Jean Harlow in the 1930s, right: Princess Diana
Coco herself casually knotted a rope of pearls over her bare skin, creating a reverse necklace, a look imitated by Princess Diana in a sensational red velvet Catherine Walker gown in 1985.
The golden age of backless was Hollywood in its heyday, with stars such as Veronica Lake and Grace Kelly gliding across the screen in stunning gowns, which nonetheless conformed to the film studios’ strictures on bare flesh.
Next, of course, came Marilyn Monroe, sizzling in a backless number in Some Like It Hot.
Too much bosom or leg was considered vulgar, but the back knew no rules.
Hilary Swank’s exquisitely draped, perfectly unadorned navy dress at the 2005 Oscars was a masterly modern rendition of the classic look, emphasising just how simple and arresting backless can be.
Five tips for a beautiful back
Polish to perfection
Exfoliating skin a few days before your event will get rid of any dullness, but avoid scrubs that can leave scratches and choose a body wash or spray containing glycolic acid (and salicylic acid if you’re prone to spots). If you have a week to prepare, start using Ameliorate’s Transforming Body Lotion (from £6.50, ameliorate.com) twice daily, which simultaneously exfoliates and smoothes skin.
Pictured: Marilyn Monroe takes the cut lower for Some Like It Hot
Buy a back scratcher
Don’t have a willing partner or friend to help you reach every part of your back? Then you’ll need an applicator — basically, a back scratcher with a pad on it — to get any lotions to the middle of your back. BackBliss (£13.97, backbliss.com) is the original and the best.
Fake a flawless bake
Fake tan is the easy way to give skin a glow, but if time is running out, body make-up is the foolproof way to go. Vita Liberata’s Body Blur (from £19.77, lookfantastic.com) and Fenty’s Body Sauce (£40, fentybeauty.com) both give colour and a subtle shimmer that won’t come off on clothes, but washes off.
Go braless beforehand
If you’ve got an evening event, you don’t want red marks from a bra, so spend the afternoon braless in a loose dress that won’t leave indentations.
Make instant muscles
To give some subtle definition when you haven’t had the chance to work out, get someone to use a darker shade of bronzer just under your shoulder blades and down your spine, plus maybe a hint of highlighter on the bony bits of your shoulder blades.
For less busty girls like me, it’s a surefire way to wow
By Lady Alice Manners
There is a timeless elegance to a backless dress that I love. At its best, it can outshine anything; it has, if you will excuse the pun, all the allure and none of the front.
Although, for me, the beauty of wearing a backless dress is that it’s so comfortable. I can put on a gown exposing the length of my spine, or an expanse of shoulder blade, and not worry about my appearance for the rest of the evening.
As actress Zendaya’s dress proves perfectly, a backless design is super sexy, but ultimately everything that needs to be covered up is.
Spine-tingling: Actress Zendaya wears a £2,000 vintage Roberto Cavalli dress with a serpent design at the Ballon D’Or awards this week
I love the way Zendaya has chosen full-length sleeves. A long sleeve, a high neck or both would be my top tips for going backless; the dress doesn’t have to be skin-tight, it could just lightly hang off your hips. It doesn’t even have to be a dress — I love a wide-leg trouser with a halter-neck, back-exposing top.
The rule is: go as low as is comfortable. I get stressed if I’m wearing something that isn’t 100 per cent effortless, but with a backless dress, you can let it hang on your body.
If a dress is split to the hip, there is always the worry that a sudden gust of wind might blow it open. Likewise, with a low-cut dress, one can never completely relax and that shatters some of the appeal. That said, I didn’t appreciate the subtle sophistication of slipping into something that only reveals a glimpse of flesh at the back until I was in my 20s.
Off the shoulder: Anya Taylor-Joy at the 2021 Emmy Awards in a Dior Haute Couture number, costing from £50,000
There is one such dress in my wardrobe, however, that I have owned since I was 21. It doesn’t have a full dropped back, but reveals a deep circle around the shoulder blades. It’s long-sleeved, full-length, and it’s my go-to dress for black-tie or the red carpet. Bought in Topshop, it wasn’t expensive and is the ultimate chameleon dress. It looks amazing with simple black stiletto sandals, but can be transformed into a glitzier gown with statement jewellery.
A backless dress generally flatters all body types, but gives those not blessed with much bust — like my older sister Violet and me — a chance to create their own version of sexy.
Let’s face it, this style does not allow much scope for meaningful, supportive underwear; an invisible stick-on bra can only do so much.
Red hot: Rosamund Pike dons a Dior dress, costing around £16,000, in Cannes in July
Violet looks amazing in a backless dress. I remember a stunning, black Julien Macdonald one she wore to the British Film Institute that worked perfectly on her.
If you have curves like Elizabeth Taylor, why wouldn’t you wear a figure-hugging, voluptuous gown, with a plunging neckline? You work with what nature gives you. But if you don’t possess an hourglass shape, then a backless dress is an elegant way to make an impression. It offers a subtle hint of seduction which in today’s society is a rare thing.
But I do think it’s a look for younger women. In older women, beauty shines from within so there’s no need to show off everything. And there are some lovely options with a swooping neckline that reveal just the shoulder blades.
As a stylist, I believe Zendaya is trailblazing on every level in the fashion world. She can do no wrong, so if she is doing it, lots will follow.
Be prepared for a backless party season.
Shimmering: Jessica Chastain wears a £2,500 Stella McCartney gown in October
Picture research: CLAIRE CISOTTI
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