When it comes to Hollywood’s red carpets and the runways of fashion week, an H2O-soaked appearance is the ultimate chic. Better characterized by a just-stepped-out-of-the-ocean look, the wet look has remained a staple for everyone from the Kardashians to ’80s Galliano cementing its status as a mainstay trend withstanding the fashions of different decades. But where did this trend come from, and why would anyone want to look like they’ve just been pushed into a pool? Believe it or not, the iconic style has a rich background that has informed fashion history spanning far beyond the Met Gala’s existence.
Visualize the era of Marie Antoinette: voluminous ball gowns, sky-high hairstyles, delicate bows, and…wet dresses. With comfort as an afterthought, women in revolutionary France would submerge their muslin dresses in water before leaving their homes in order to stay à la mode. As wet dresses were considered the ultimate display of sensuality and attraction, women would ignore the lack of practicality and significant health risks to achieve the body-clinging effect.
While corsets are often crowned the most dangerous trend of the 18th century, the wet look may take the cake. Muslin dresses are constructed of paper-thin fabric, and can feel colder while wet than being fully naked. As Paris is not exactly a tropical oasis, many women contracted the Muslin Disease, which is an illness akin to pneumonia caused by the wet clothing trend. Some believe that the prevalence of this sickness led to the influenza outbreak in 1803. Needless to say, the wet look did no favors for fashion’s reputation at the time.
Flash forward to the ’60s, the wet look drifted in an entirely different direction: men’s hair. Slick and shiny comb-backs curated by oil-based gel products were seen on the head of every stylish man. Pomade brands such as Chemico Works launched widely popular formulas, the most widespread being “Brylcream.”
Women were not entirely left out of the trend, as during the Space Age of fashion, PVC clothing was all the rage. With the intense shine of the vinyl fabric, wearers of the look appeared wet in a this-is-my-raincoat kind of way. PVC proved to be a staple among ’60s and ’70s designers, becoming the textile of choice for the likes of Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges, and Paco Rabanne, to name a few. Mary Quant, a British designer, was the pioneer of PVC and created the first-ever line with the material in 1963, naming it “wet collection.”
As the ’80s rolled around, John Galliano launched his “Fallen Angels” collection and rebooted the lost wet muslin trend in 1986. Directly referencing the 18th century fashion victims as “fallen angels,” Galliano recreated their looks with stunning authenticity. Models dressed in white muslin frocks of different styles were drenched in water, highlighting their bare bodies beneath the clothing.
Alexander McQueen took his own spin on the wet look in the ’90s, premiering his “Untitled” collection in what he referred to as a “golden shower.” At the finale of his runway show, McQueen unleashed a downpour of faux rain upon his white-dressed models in a modern take of the resurrected trend. Above the precipitation was a large lighting effect that encased the falling droplets in a gold tone – hence creating a golden shower. While his designs were not as controversial as their 18th century equivalent, McQueen’s show was considered very taboo, especially in the eyes of his investors.
During his reign at Gucci in the ’90s and early 2000s, Tom Ford made a splash with his interpretation of the wet look. In fact, Ford curated his very own formula for spraying models backstage. At his Spring/Summer 2001 show for Gucci, Ford famously was pictured drenching icon Kate Moss with his mystery recipe.
However, Kim Kardashian may be the queen of the wet look, having made headlines for three separate appearances in the avant garde style. First at the VMA’s, later a magazine cover, and most notably: the 2019 Met Gala.
Designed to appear as if she had just exited the ocean, Kardashian’s look was anything but typical. Contrary to the physically wet adaptations of fashion history, her custom Thierry Mugler dress simulated the look of dripping water by using clear crystals in droplet shapes cascading from a nude mirage. Completing her specially-made couture with the appearance of soaking hair and wet skin, Kim Kardashian truly personified the wet look in its most relevant application of the time.
In its most widespread form, the wet look occurs through beauty. Wet hair manages to seep its way into every award show, pop music video, editorial spread, and runway show. Supermodels such as Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, and Kaia Gerber have been spotted in full hair-soaking glory, in addition to pop stars such as Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.
On the runway, Versace hosted an underwater themed show called “Versacepolis” for Spring/Summer 2021 in Milan. Models sported soaking hair that stuck onto their faces for a natural aesthetic. Other designers including Coperni, Acne Studio, and Sportmax featured wet beauty across various 2021 fashion weeks.
For the Spring/Summer 2019 season, designer Ashish Gupta enlisted the help of iconic hair stylist Sam McKnight who poured water over model’s heads before their trip down the catwalk to ensure a true just-been-drenched-with-a-bucket-of-water look, for the sake of fashion, of course.
Recently, up-and-coming designer Di Petsa has designed a fresh narrative for what the wet look should represent. While the original 18th century trend was largely based on misogynistic roots and appealing to the male gaze, Petsa has a new definition: self-birth. Instead of utilizing wet white dresses as a sex symbol, her latest collection “Wetness” is aimed to allow women to embrace their sexuality and all forms of wetness: blood, sweat, tears, motherhood.
Di Petsa’s looks have caught the attention of various magazines and public figures, most famously Kylie Jenner and Nicki Minaj for her pregnancy announcement. While her collection may seem like simply white dresses dipped in water, Petsa’s designs are very complex, and include no real water. Having developed a unique textile technique that simulates a wet appearance, Petsa constructs a fully dry and wearable design. No more Muslin Disease necessary!
Over the course of fashion history, the wet look has floated in and out of style with each reintroduction more scandalous than the last. Merging historical styles with modern day tastes, the trend manages to reinvent itself continuously withstanding the tests of time. Simply compare the 18th century version- a depiction of death – with the 21st century version – an illustration of re-birth. The wet look is a true representation of fashion beyond clothes.END
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