In July, Florence Pugh attended the Valentino Haute Couture fashion show wearing a hot pink tulle dress. In her last fitting before the event, she and the designer Pierpaolo Piccioli decided to remove the lining of the dress to eliminate any confusion over the intentionality of its transparency. When photos became public, many outraged keyboard warriors took to social media to express their disgust at the ‘vulgarity’ of Pugh’s fashion choice.
In response to the backlash, Florence posted photos of herself in the dress on Instagram, with a lengthy caption explaining her feelings about the dress, and the slew of online hate that came with it. In her post, she notes explicitly that men have been the primary critics of the dress, pointing out the ease with which men feel entitled to “totally destroy a woman’s body”. What was most alarming to her, was the extent to which men felt tangibly threatened by the choice she made to showcase her body. “What. Is. So. Terrifying”, she continued, about “the size of my boobs and body”.
Florence Pugh’s choice to wear something that showed off her small boobs was seen by male critics as incompatible with empowerment.
As is somewhat inevitable when a feminist movement becomes more central to public discourse, a more focussed discussion emerges. Primarily, who is permitted to free the nipple? I have a feeling that the backlash may not have been so severe if Pugh was seen by men to have a more ‘ideal’ body type. I can’t help but draw parallels between this and Kate Moss’ ‘iconic’ see-through dress moment of the 1990s. In Vogue’s ‘Life in Looks’ series, Moss recounts the embarrassment she felt when she realised that the flashes of the paparazzi cameras made her dress appear see-through. To me, there’s something about the accidental nature of this fashion ‘event’, and Kate Moss’ seemingly ‘ideal’ body type, that makes me uneasy when we consider the backlash Florence Pugh has faced over her choice to free the nipple. There was considerably less outrage at Kate Moss’ see-through dress, arguably due to what is asked of a professional model: to have a desirable body type, and to act as a mannequin. Contrasting this, Florence Pugh’s choice to wear something that showed off her small boobs was seen by male critics as incompatible with empowerment.
In terms of the larger-scale implications of this, reducing the Free The Nipple movement to simply a showcasing of the ‘ideal’ female body perpetuates a preference for slim, cis-gendered, femme, able-bodied women. The statement Pugh was making with this Valentino dress acts as a response to unrealistic body standards, and the backlash serves to demonstrate how bodies perceived to be ‘imperfect’ are still subject to considerable negativity and unfair scrutiny, despite us living in a seemingly more progressive society.
Though Pugh is a hugely successful actress, the choice to wear a see-through dress was something male critics saw as unbecoming of a respectable professional.
The ability for a woman to have agency and a multi-faceted existence, as well as being able to express their sexuality is one of the primary elements that modern Western feminism is concerned with. In her post, Pugh pointed out that many of the men who critiqued her dress on public platforms did so with job titles and work emails in their bio. This points to an important theme when it comes to broadening the horizons of what it means to be a woman and embrace your sexuality. The duality of sexuality and professionalism is something that men enjoy, which women are frequently not afforded. In fact, sexuality and professional success are, for men, often intertwined in some ways. Cis- and heteronormative ideas of the ‘breadwinner’ paint working men as powerful, both monetarily and domestically. Being a successful man is something that women often desire in a partner. Meanwhile, the female boss is held to extremely rigid standards, seen as overly emotional and too bossy, and having to constantly prove the validity of their identity in traditionally male spaces. The tight confines of female respectability are evidenced by the negative reaction to Pugh’s dress. Though Pugh is a hugely successful actress, the choice to wear a see-through dress was something male critics saw as unbecoming of a respectable professional.
So what can we learn from Florence Pugh about freeing the nipple? Florence was well aware that the dress would spark commentary, but the unprecedented quantity of negative attention speaks to ways in which patriarchy is still very much present in our everyday lives. Pugh counts herself lucky that she was raised in a way that taught her to embrace the intricacies of her body, and to always embrace it as her own, whether or not her body adhered to rigid beauty standards. This instance of online scrutiny didn’t make Pugh shy away from showing off her body, and she’s since worn more sheer garments by Valentino. What this goes to show is, though acts of social defiance may initially spark outrage at those unwilling to open their minds, continuing to make these statements is incredibly important. Fashion presents a way in which these statements can exist in male-dominated spaces where women are frequently mistreated, and continuing to use fashion as a vehicle for social change will hopefully reduce stigma around freeing the nipple over time.