Underneath It All

As we on #teamknitwit like to jokingly (and yet earnestly) say, “Boobs are totally trending.” So, when a RISD senior approached us with her RISD Museum Fellowship thesis commenting on surface design’s apparent obsession with the female nude, we let her bare all.

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BY EDITH YOUNG
ILLUSTRATION BY LEAH GOREN

As a society, we are fairly well acclimated to seeing the unclothed human figure—albeit in a tight handful of locations: private domestic spaces, locker rooms, figure drawing classes, museums, mens’ magazines, R-rated movies. Yet over the past few seasons, designers have freed the nipple, placing nudes—usually female—on their patterned and printed surfaces. Fashion designer Rachel Antonoff’s spring 2014 collection became iconic for its adaptation of Francine Dressler’s “I’ll Be Wearing A Red Carnation” print. Meanwhile, Cold Picnic’s “Private Parts” wool rugs made linear, minimalist allusions to full frontal nudity. Girls’ protagonist Hannah Horvath, plays topless ping pong on Clashist’s “Lena Dunham Birthday Suit” tee, Leah Goren’s pink-skinned female figures lounge on a silk blouse and scarf, and Claire Pignot’s Heinui mermaids seem to have lost their bralettes during a deep sea swim. The full frontal trend continues this year, with Rachel Comey’s pre-fall 2015 seated nude print, which dominates the sheep’s wool on her Anjou round cross body bag, but is less apparent on her Larrabee Dress’ pleats. What is the explanation behind these figures and their prevalence in contemporary textile design? 

Figure drawing is one of the first things art students learn. Yet, when compared to more canonized interpretations of the nude, from Titian to Edward Weston, the female form takes on a new dialogue in the realm of surface design. Free from the voyeurism of fine art and mingling in the world of functional everyday goods, its significance becomes more democratic and accessible. “I am a woman—it’s all I know, so the subject is familiar to me,” says illustrator Leah Goren, “I see my work as mainly decorative; I don’t assign any other meaning to it than that.” True, while the nude is deeply personal (or at least easier to identify with than your standard issue floral or geometric pattern) when abstracted, it’s an almost universal form of self-portraiture. 

Maybe it’s the effect of the internet, where the personal and universal constantly and confoundingly intermingle. Goren mentions that the popularity of her design—and its feminist leanings—are “a reflection of what women are talking about and what the Internet is talking about.” These prints attract a strong community on Instagram (counterintuitively, as the platform bans users who expose an actual human, female nipple). Like Goren, Cold Picnic designers like Phoebe Sung and Peter Buer are now producing more of their “Private Parts” products in response to enthusiastic demand. Aflutter with peach and eggplant emojis, the front lines of social media serve as a reliable indicator of consumer response. Heather Lipner of Clashist notes that “everyone’s reaction is different on social media, but overall we’ve had a lot more engagement.” 

It’s not just a matter of responding to market demand or cranking out breast illustrations for viral potential. Many, if not all, of the designers entertaining this trend operate independently, where they have the freedom to express views, intentionally political or not. Nude prints can take an activist stance on body politics and body policing, which is not lost on Clashist founder Heather Lipner, who connects the positive social change during the Obama administration with the imagery on her products. Clashist’s prints aim to empower women and establish a female voice in conversations about the women’s bodies. Just as Dunham and her peers seek to reclaim political conversations off the fabric, female creative directors and designers like Heather Lipner, Phoebe Sung, and Rachel Antonoff are reclaiming the female form in their work. 

Finally, there is a basic conceptual draw, something instantly engaging—and humorous—about the paradox of wearing a nude motif to cover your own naked body. Perhaps it’s our contemporary feminist answer to our parent’s breast-baring shirts of the 1970s. While sporting a Francine Dressler print may associate its wearer with a witty and eccentric visual (implying, one hopes, that the wearer may be witty and eccentric herself), its boisterous wink (and nod, and elbow) towards the wearer’s likely association with feminism is undeniable. Sung agrees that “people seem really into the naked form right now, especially breasts,” which she attributes to “this new wave of feminism, which is wonderful. There is a growing acceptance of a variety of body types. It’s cool to be proud of your body, especially if you’re a woman!” Whitney Bickers stocks pieces from Clashist and Heinui at her taste-making boutique, Myrtle. She notes that the hand-drawn quality of many of the pieces is especially important: “Customers respond to the handmade aesthetic as much as the content, in my experience. As an illustrated figure, nudes have the ability to be cheeky and lighthearted, rather than sexualized.” 

Ultimately, wearing a Clashist t-shirt or a Rachel Antonoff x Francine Dressler jumpsuit broadcasts that you are not embarrassed or intimidated by nudity—yours or anyone else’s.