The timeless charm of Flappers and geishas is what makes them so appealing
By Lisa Hilton
Dramatic, daring, disarmingly demure. Fashion chameleon: the backless gown. 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. Photo: Flappers during the Roaring 20s
If you love showing off your cleavage, it can be a great look. However, being backless will not attract as much attention. Until you look around.
Diego Velazquez, an artist from Spain, risked his life to paint Rokeby Venus. This full-length, naked nude was seen only from the side. However, in Western culture, the focus of erotic affection has always been 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.
Twenties flappers sought to be neat and androgynous. They often bound the breasts while letting the back show through.
Lisa claims the golden age of backless was Hollywood in its heyday, despite film studios’ strictures on bare flesh. Left: Jean Harlow, Princess Diana in the 1930s. Right:
Coco casually tied a knot of pearls to her skin and created a reverse-neck, which was imitated in 1985 by Princess Diana, who wore a stunning red velvet Catherine Walker gown.
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.
Marilyn Monroe was next, looking hot in some backless numbers in Some Like It Hot.
A lot of bosom, or too much leg was considered vulgar. But the rules for the back were not clear.
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.
For less busty girls like me, it’s a surefire way to wow
By Lady Alice Manners
A backless dress has a timeless elegance that I love. The best version of it will outshines any other dress. It has, if I may pardon the pun.
Although, for me, the beauty of wearing a backless dress is that it’s so comfortable. It’s easy to put on a dress that exposes my spine or my shoulder blades and be comfortable throughout the night.
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
Zendaya chose full-length sleeves which I find very appealing. 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.
Go as low as you feel 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.
Splitting a dress to the hips can lead to the possibility that it might be pulled open by an unexpected gust of wind. A low-cut dress can make it difficult to feel relaxed, and this can ruin the charm. 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
One such dress is in my closet, which I own since the age of 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. This dress looks great with black stiletto sandals. You can also make it glimmery with statement jewelry.
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 incredible in a dress without a back. The black Julien Macdonald gown she wore at the British Film Institute looked amazing on Violet.
If you have curves like Elizabeth Taylor, why wouldn’t you wear a figure-hugging, voluptuous gown, with a plunging neckline? Nature gives you what it offers. 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. There are many options for revealing the shoulders with a low neckline.
Zendaya’s style is unmatched in fashion. Because she can do it all, many will copy her.
You can expect a wild party season.
Shimmering: Jessica Chastain wears a £2,500 Stella McCartney gown in October
Image research by CLAIRE CISOTTI