Bare a subtle hint of skin with this summer’s sexy-meets-demure wardrobe essential
Unless you’ve had your eyes closed since the spring, you can’t have failed to notice that Britain is looking especially sexy at the moment. In the pages of our fashion magazines, on display throughout our bars and restaurants, and sunbathing shamelessly in our parks – this summer, naked shoulders are everywhere.
It started, like so many contagious trends, at fashion week. Somehow, designers seemed to sense it in the air for SS16: off-the-shoulder was the silhouette of the season. At New York brand Monse, dresses were designed to look like white shirts wrapped informally around the upper arms. At Temperley London, ruffled gowns with a Cuban vibe hung from just under the collarbone, full of effortless, summery sex appeal. At Proenza Schouler, some pieces sat so low on the arms that the models appeared to be in the middle of shrugging them off. Backstage, co-designer Lazaro Hernandez summed up the thinking behind the collection with one evocative image: ‘We were looking at bananas – things that peel away from the body.’
The off-the-shoulder look is nothing new – in fact, according to the V&A Museum’s assistant curator Susanna Cordner, it was first fashionable around 1815, with a fad for wide-necked gowns designed to direct attention to the bust. The trend has come around at frequent intervals ever since, in one form or another. ‘It’s always about reframing the body, because it does make you look at someone differently,’ she says. ‘It’s not just about the exposure; it completely changes the way you carry yourself.’ Going strap-free doesn’t allow much slouching, after all; forget your posture and you could end up with your very own wardrobe malfunction.
This time around though, the effect has evolved. ‘Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the off-the-shoulder look was always teamed with a really nipped-in, structured waist, so it was about cinching, and then emphasizing with this flesh at the top,’ says Cordner. ‘But the interpretations that are around now are all about skimming the body – it’s almost like being in a state of undress and having the fabric whisper around you. I think this reincarnation is very different.’ The traditional off-the-shoulder look used to sculpt the body; the new trend is all about gently enveloping it.
Indeed, many of the high street versions are as far as you can get from bodycon. Zara, Marks & Spencer, and Mango are all selling blouses that cling at the top but hang loose down the torso, making this an incredibly forgiving and comfortable style.
‘While at first the off-the-shoulder look may seem a little bold and daring, it’s in fact surprisingly versatile,’ says stylist Alice Watt. ‘
The styling possibilities are endless, from a roll-neck jumper with cut-out shoulder detailing, to draped cotton dresses that appear to fall off the body.’
For designer Caroline Constas, the silhouette has long been a staple in her collections: ‘It is subtly sexy,’ she says. Though the shoulder doesn’t have the blatant carnal connotations of a plunging neckline or a low-backed dress, there is something undeniably erogenous about it nonetheless; the skin there is usually soft and smooth, and it’s often the first part of the body to be kissed by the sun. Anyone who has seen Flashdance will remember the wide-necked sweatshirt that hung off Jennifer Beals, casual but still palpably suggestive.
"The off-shoulder look can be sophisticated and sensual at the same time,’ adds Constas. ‘It’s difficult to say that about revealing any other part of the body".
So this trend, which will be the defining look of the season, feels palate-refreshingly different to the tiny crop tops and short shorts we’ve been tempted to wear in summers past. It’s offering a new mood to our wardrobes, and a new, elegant sexuality we haven’t seen for some time. And if baring your shoulders still feels nerve-wracking, just focus on the accessorising opportunities it presents, says Watt: ‘It’s a great excuse to show off your super-long earrings.’